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“Going Out Like That” is not just another single. It symbolizes the very first song from the NASH Icon enterprise pairing Big Machine Records with Cumulus Media in an effort to revitalize overlooked legacy artists, and the first single from Reba McEntire in nearly four years. As the precursor to a planned 2015 album release, the single also may give us a glimpse into what we can expect from a revamped Reba—if through the NASH Icon venture she may have the latitude to be a little more traditional, or if she will try to hang with the young pups with a more contemporary sound.
Reba resides in her own unique generation when it comes to country artists. She was already established when the “Class of ’89″ came rolling out, yet her commercial success has stretched well into the 2000′s, and has been assisted by her acting career and her seemingly constant presence in front of the cameras and the generally favorable take on her as an artist from a wide swath of country fandom. Considering the entire breadth of her body of work, it would be tough to call her either traditional or contemporary because she’s dabbled in both, though her decision to cover Beyoncé’s “If I Were A Boy” in 2011 made many wonder if she was reaching for a shot at relevancy beyond her twilighting status.
Written by veteran songster Rhett Akins with Ben Hayslip and Jason Sellers, “Going Out Like That” sees Reba delve into the whole nightlife motif that is very hot right now in “country” music. Giving a 3rd person account of a girl going through a breakup, the song takes an empowering trajectory of not allowing the jilt of love lost to hold a young woman down. She fights through the tears to hit the town and leave all her bad memories behind in a volley of alcoholic drinks and dance moves.
Where the song tries to find a balance between the two country worlds Reba resides in is in the instrumentation. The serrated-edged Stratocaster-style rock guitar is there, but starts off a little more subdued that what most modern country might feature; just tempered enough to allow the acoustic guitar to still be heard in the mix, while steel guitar helps countrify the rhythm and instrumentation. The drumming may be a little too much for a country song, but it fits the style and context. Though not ideal to either the old school or new school mindset, the song starts off amicable to both until a fairly self-indulgent guitar solo careens into the spotlight, and Reba’s vocals begin to be transmogrified by technology.
Thematically, one of the issues with “Going Out Like That” is not necessarily where it goes, but where it could have gone. Like so many modern country songs, it swaps a third resolving verse for yet another run through the catchy chorus. The song seems custom written to score more of a deep emotional impact by resolving into something more than “she’s smiling while she’s throwing back shots.” It could have spoken to a more personal realization or a true vindication for the heroine instead of just a boozed-fueled night of blurry recollections of party moments. This is the fundamental difference between country music circa 1985 and country music in 2015—the moral is gone. With many of country’s current hot upstarts, you can excuse this oversight because they arguably have never interfaced with country music of that nature. But with Reba, you kind of expect it, or at least hope for it.
Other small things like Reba talking about guys “blowing up her phone” feel a little anachronistic from Reba’s vantage and reinforce the theory that she’s trying to reach for renewed attention to her career, though the song is savvy to set its perspective in the 3rd person to attempt to resolve this.
“Going Out Like That” was released on January 6th and immediately shot up to the #1 song spot on iTunes, speaking once again to the buying power of the middle-aged country public that has been so unnecessarily abandoned by the mainstream in a headlong pursuit of youth. This was the space NASH Icon was hoping to fill, and with their very first trial balloon, they’re already seeing success, and in terms of sales and not just streaming—something that gives these NASH Icon artists a financial advantage over their younger counterparts. The song should also do well on radio with its Cumulus backing, and we can expect to see favorable chart results for the single in the coming weeks.
This is a safe move from Reba. “Going Out Like That” won’t win her any traditionalist support, but it also won’t stimulate a ton of criticism, while similarly finding a receptive audience to mainstream 30 to 50-somethings that have joined classic country fans lately in wondering what the hell has happened to their country radio.
1 Gun Up, 1 Gun Down.
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“Going Out Like That” does not have any public display media available at the moment, but can be previewed or purchased on Amazon and iTunes, or if you do the Spotify thing, listen below.
This isn’t going to be some long form praising of Sturgill Simpson’s work in 2014, or yet another rundown of his long list of successes last year. There’s already been plenty of that, arguably too much of it, and I am just as tired of writing about it as you are of reading of it. Yeah yeah, Sturgill Simpson’s great, but his name has become the independent country version of click bait. Music media outlets have sniffed out how hot product he is, and next thing you know he can’t make a bowel movement without someone writing about it, and then reaching out to him for a repost.
No wonder he deleted his Twitter account, and ponders quitting the whole business upon occasion, or putting limitations on his output. It’s great that his music has received so much attention, but it’s the job of fans, media, and even detractors to understand the style of human being their dealing with, and show a little respect for his idiosyncratic nature and privacy. That’s why through much of 2014, Saving Country Music enacted a moratorium on Sturgill Simpson coverage to only be broken for essential news. It’s gotten so out of hand, it makes me sick even having to cue up yet another blank space and peck away towards his praise, but someone has to win this stupid award, and Lord knows Sturgill deserves it.
But this isn’t going to be as much about praising Sturgill Simpson as asking for a little bit of perspective from us all. Sturgill Simpson’s job is to play music, not to save the world, or to save country, and it’s not fair of us to foist our dreams and desires on an artist who already seems a little unsure of standing in front of people and asking to command their attention. The everyman vibe from Sturgill is one of the things that makes him such a lovable character, and instills his music with an authenticity most musicians can only attempt to interpret into their persona.
Some have accused Saving Country Music of unfairly lumping all the woes of country on Sturgill’s back, with an emphatic “Sturgill Simpson isn’t saving country music!” coming from a number of high profile outlets in 2014, as if since this site has been a proponent of Sturgill and its name is such, then these parallels are fair to draw when in truth this site has gone out of its way to if anything relinquish that burden from Sturgill that some well-minded but naive souls may place upon him.
Saving Country Music’s work for Sturgill Simpson has been done for the better part of a year, except for maybe trying to offer some counterbalancing and perspective. I know my place, and though Saving Country Music’s feisty little bullhorn may be fierce, Sturgill’s name is too far flung at this point to influence any eventual outcomes in a material manner. It’s time to move on to the pursuit of the next Sturgill Simpson, to unearth the Karen Jonas’s, the Tami Neilson’s, the Spencer Cornett’s and Possessed by Paul James’s. Because artists who are struggling need support, but artists that are launched support themselves, and help support others.
At the same time, Sturgill Simpson may need some perspective too, and to understand he now has responsibilities beyond himself. The reason that Sturgill Simpson has awakened something special in so many listeners in 2014 is because people want to believe in something, in an artist that is like them, that they can relate to: independent-minded, respectful of the roots of the music, but that is actually successful, and is successful on his own name, from his own sweat and talent, and that holds a hope and promise for the future. Since so few among us are graced with the opportunity to live out the fantasy of becoming a music star, the rest of us tend to live this dream out vicariously through our musical heroes. That is why we cherish them so much, and celebrate their victories as victories of our own.
But independent country fans have been at this brink before, following artists that look like they could really bust out into something big, something beyond the humble independent musicscape, only then to witness their great vessel of hope seemingly train wreck the opportunity. These artists climb nine rungs up a ten rung ladder, and then for whatever reason, maybe because they’re afraid of success, maybe because they feel too foreign to what the public perceives them as, or maybe from some silly notion that self-destruction is noble or creative, they screw it all up, many times on purpose.
I’ve seen this happen so many times with these independent successes, you begin to wonder if it’s fate. Hank Williams III in 2008, when it felt like he was on the brink of turning country music inside out, Justin Townes Earle when he decided to destroy a dressing room in Indianapolis, Ryan Adams burning bridges and purposely offending people as a self-ingratiating medium for expression, and so on and so forth. For some of these artists, sobriety of the mind in one form or another comes too late, and that magical uplifting momentum leaves them in this middling ground, stalled out, mired in sameness and detached from their appetite; a shell of their previous creative self and relegated to bad self-impersonations affording mere glimmers of their previous creative brilliance.
Sturgill Simpson may think it’s selfish to want to be famous or successful in music, or that it’s an enterprise of the ego. But at this point, it would be selfish of Sturgill to not pursue whatever successes the music may bestow him. I’m not talking about the fame, money, or awards, but where all of these things lead. This thing is now bigger than Sturgill Simpson, or anyone. Who knows the forces at play that pick one among us out of the choir to sing solo, but they’re beyond our comprehensive capacities, and are best not to second guess.
I don’t want to hear about Sturgill Simpson only making a few more albums before he quits as he told Joe Rogan, or purposefully not pursuing the full exploration of his talents because he’s afraid it may come across as egotistical. I don’t want to hear about any limitations imposed on his creative trajectory, I want to hear how all obstacles have been removed. If Sturgill Simpson’s desire is to only make five albums, then excellent, so be it. But if that leaves even one song left unheard that is buried deep in the Sturgill Simpson psyche, slowly being molded into a diamond, then we all lose, most especially Sturgill Simpson.
Talent and relevancy the likes that Sturgill finds himself amidst are too rare to be flippant with. When they bestow you with grace, it is your duty to exploit them and see them to their bitter end, because for every man whose endowed with such opportunities, there’s 10,000 who wish they were. Not pursuing those opportunities, that is selfishness and egotism.
Sturgill Simpson’s next album will be the most important of his career. He’s reached the pinnacle of independent roots music, so now the question will be if he’ll plateau, or break through. Will he purposefully offend people simply to not allow himself to be wrongfully pigeon-holed, or will he boldly mine his own original creative expression, be damned if people are offended or not? Will he understand that country music is bigger than any one artist, and there’s a responsibility to the music we all as country music lovers must behold?
Things will not always be as rosy as they are for Sturgill Simpson right now. There will be setbacks, and missteps, and second guesses, because that’s the way of things. We are in the midst of the Sturgill Simpson glory days, and the only question is how long will this era last until it eventually dissipates, as all the great eras and artists in music invariably do.
But let’s not inadvertently stimulate an early onset of this sun-setting of an era by smothering Sturgill Simpson, either with our praise, attention, expectations, perceived obligations, selfish desires as fans, or shallow perceptions of him as a Waylon impersonator or leftist ideologue. It is our job as fans to support our favorite artists, even when they don’t deliver exactly up to expectations, or leave us in the lurch to refocus on life and family. Because at one point they touched us and brought us such joy and fulfillment that it changed our lives. And for Sturgill Simpson, that moment was two thousand and fourteen.
Ah yes, Craig Wayne Boyd, reigning champion of NBC’s singing competition The Voice, padawan of Blake Shelton, and touted by many to be the next great hope for traditional country returning to the mainstream. But to accomplish any of this, he was going to have to successfully hurdle the recent history of winners of The Voice of melting right back into abject obscurity after their big win. The Voice was a bit more savvy this time however, or someone was, learning from the show’s previous track record, and helped Boyd out by releasing his first single called “My Baby’s Got A Smile On Her Face” while the memory of the big win was still in the mind of viewers.
Signed to Scott Borchetta’s and Big Machine’s Dot Records imprint, Boyd has seemingly transitioned from amateur reality show contestant to full-fledged professional performer fairly seamlessly. This development also sees Scott Borchetta entering the reality show performer space with both feet, since he’s already signed up to be the mentor on American Idol and committed to sign the eventual winner of the upcoming season. Borchetta might be making the power move to monopolize this television reality show talent. And if his initial results with Craig Wayne Boyd are any indication, the strategy could be quite successful for him.
Boyd’s “My Baby’s Got A Smile On Her Face” became only the second single to debut at #1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart ever. The other #1 debut was Garth Brooks’ “More Than A Memory” from 2007. This development had the media going crazy, ready to annoint Craig as the genre’s next superstar. And this is just the beginning of Craig’s chart success. He was able to get Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line” all the way to #1 on Billboard’s Digital Songs chart, and #15 on the Hot Country Songs chart earlier in December. Boyd also took the old Gospel standard “Old Rugged Cross” to #7 on the charts, and Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues” to #37 previously, bolstered by the social media bonanza that ensues through The Voice voting system that also rewards contestants for iTunes sales performance.
All of this bodes very well for Boyd bucking the trend of being a blowout in the professional ranks after the big win on The Voice. But looking at the charts the week after the release of these songs, and it exposes the boom and bust, super-famous-and-immediately-obscure-again nature of these reality show contestants. Where “My Baby’s Got A Smile On Her Face” was making history on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart last week, this week it has completely dropped out of the Top 25. Poof, it’s gone. Sales of the song dropped a whopping 94% in its second week, from 99,000 to 6,000. And this same fate was met by all of the other Boyd chart successes. The hyper attention of The Voice just doesn’t hold up over a multi-week time scale; it is exposed by it.
What “My Baby’s Got A Smile On Her Face” also doesn’t deliver on is the promise of Craig Wayne Boyd bringing a more traditional sound to the table he says is inspired by the likes of Merle Haggard and Hank Jr. “My Baby’s Got A Smile On Her Face” is very, very pedestrian, with a pallid, and predicable rock guitar sonic base, and a simplistic lyrical offering indicative of adult contemporary Keith Urban-style safeness. The only country instrumentation comes in at the 1:20 mark when a fiddle briefly shows up, while the lyrics never trend toward anything country-themed. The song is not bad as much as it’s just superfluous and forgettable, paralleling the chart trend that saw such a precipitous fall off.
With all the hoopla around the Craig Wayne Boyd win, the question kept being if new music after the show would hold up to the hype. It’s just one song, but so far it hasn’t. Boyd also had no hand in writing the song, despite this being one of his selling points. It was penned by Mark Marchetti and Stephanie Jones, and produced by Blake Shelton.
This is going to sound like complete poppycock to many, but studying musical performance for many years, you begin to notice that when artists are singing with forced emotion, they raise their eyebrows. And when artists are performing with true earnestness and emotion, their eyebrows lower and bear down. In the video for “My Baby’s Got A Smile On Her Face,” Craig Wayne Boy’s eyebrows are reaching for the sky, and the scenes reinforce the song’s sort of clean, safe, adult contemporary style.
Yes it’s just one song, and 1st singles tend to reach for the widest audience while Boyd’s eventual album cuts may deliver on the promise of a more traditional sound from the (potentially) burgeoning star. But “My Baby’s Got A Smile On Her Face” is as forgettable as The Voice the week after the finale.
1 1/4 of 2 Guns Down.
Baby New Year all swaddled and cooing dropped a welcomed gift for traditional country fans on New Years Day while many people were busy boiling up New Year feasts and fixated on college football. Jamey Johnson, mere months removed from launching his own record label called Big Gassed Records, and on the heels of releasing a Christmas EP, offered a free song to his fans called “Alabama Pines” available through the Big Gassed Records website in exchange for your email information. The song is custom written for listening at the turn of the calendar, and the turning of pages in one’s life just as Jamey finds himself amidst as a newly-proclaimed independent artist.I like bringing in a New Years Eve, sitting on a front porch swing, washing down the black eyed peas with beer. Back when playing all our favorite songs, back when chasing girls and leaving home was all we ever wanted, now it’s clear. That I pined… Of moving out to Nashville, just to find that I still be living with the Alabama Pines.
The first non-Christmas original song we’ve heard from Jamey since the release of his double album The Guitar Song in 2010, “Alabama Pines” begins with the tingle-inducing tone of a single acoustic guitar plucking in a style indicative of classic Willie Nelson, ambling languidly into a slow dance song where the simple drums and steel guitar don’t kick in until after the first minute, and the mood is one of reflection and restfulness. By humming the third stanza, Jamey adds an additional warmth to the composition, leading into a shortened, final chorus that leaves the listener with an emotional weight.
“From now on, as soon as I can get it written and recorded, we will make it available,” Johnson said about his new label when it was first announced, and were seeing those results with “Alabama Pines.” “I’m excited about the new label because it gives me freedom and control of my own releases and music. It lets me release my music to my fans when I’m ready. I will be able to put out a new song without it having to be on an album. I’m a songwriter. Sometimes I write songs that fit records, sometimes I write songs that fit other people’s records and sometimes I write songs that don’t fit anywhere.”
Though this method of releasing music may seem enticing to Jamey’s fans, how financially lucrative it will be for Big Gassed Records remains to be seen. By releasing the song on New Years and not really alerting anyone beyond Johnson’s social feeds, the song really hasn’t received much media acknowledgement or made its way to radio, despite being Jamey’s first real new song in nearly five years. And then there’s the question if it should even be considered a single, or just a promotional track as a “thank you” to fans.
It may give mention to New Years and was released on January 1st, but “Alabama Pines” is a song for all year, and includes a quality and depth indicative of when Jamey’s music defined the pinnacle for popular country’s critical and classic country quota.
Along with the song, Jamey Johnson also posted a handwritten letter explaining the inspiration for the tune.
It was January 1, 2000, and I had just moved to Nashville. Two pickup trucks of old second hand furniture, 2 Japanese Akitas I had recently busted out of the Montgomery humane shelter, and my best friend Luke Garner and I were loading into my new place – a duplex in the Hermitage. My New Years resolution was already fulfilled. Everything that had happened after that was bonus. “Alabama Pines” is my love letter to the time and place from whence I came.
Though the pace of “Alabama Pines” won’t jump-start the heart, and may lend to some complaining about the tediousness of some of Jamey’s tracks, the song is timely and resonant, and more than anything, shows that Jamey Johnson still has the licks that made him a decorated and beloved songwriter and performer before going on his half-decade hiatus from original recorded music.
This is country music the way it has always sounded, and the way it should sound.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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This was the encapsulation of my thoughts after seeing Sturgill Simpson perform with his previous band at the Pickathon Festival in Portland in 2011, and naming the experience one of the best live performance of the year.
Then almost exactly a year later, and after Sturgill dumped the Sunday Valley name, and I saw him again at The Rattle Inn in west Austin, and once again he impressed. In the review I jeered myself for the 2012 prediction not coming true, yet doubled down on the idea that it eventually would.
“About this time last year, I was telling everybody that 2012 was going to be the year of Kentucky-born and Nashville-based singer / songwriter Sturgill Simpson. ‘Mark my words,’ I said…Now, sitting a stone’s throw from the end of 2012, it might be appropriate for me to eat those words. Or maybe even more appropriately, dig hard with the pen and overwrite that last ’2′ into a ’3.’ 2013 friends, mark my words! 2013 will be the year of Sturgill Simpson.”
Sturgill made reference to that show at The Rattle Inn when he took the stage at ACL Live in downtown Austin to a sold out audience on December 30th, sharing the bill with a man who Sturgill covered on his first solo album High Top Mountain, and whose bronze statue sits out front of the theater on a street that bears his name. That’s Willie Nelson I’m talking about for the folks not familiar with the Austin landscape. “There was like twelve people there,” Sturgill said of the Rattle Inn show to make reference to just how far he had come, and even that head count may have been a little embellished. “Here we are opening up for our heroes.”
When an artist reaches their 80′s it may be a little late to start a tradition. But they’re trying to make Willie Nelson playing ACL Live on New Year’s Eve into one, and with the interest in the event being such, boosters decided to add an extra day on the front side for more people to bask in the annual experience. Sturgill Simpson was tapped to be the opener for the occasion, though with Austin’s Amy Cook playing a short opening set, Sturgill being afforded a full hour performance, and a sense in the crowd that many were there to see Sturgill just as much as Willie, it had the feeling of a double billing.
Where the last time Sturgill made a stop in Austin he was sporting a conversion van stenching of the road, now there was a big primary blue tour bus idling across the street from The Moody Theater, driven from Nashville just for this event. The venue sits on the same sized footprint of its studio predecessor on the University of Texas campus blocks north of the current location, but features a mezzanine and upper balcony for much more capacity—something viewers may not be privy to when watching an Austin City Limits event on PBS. Still, not a seat in the house sits farther than 75 yards from the stage, making ideal sight lines from virtually any perch, despite the blacked-out nature of the theater’s interior not offering not much benefit aside from creating ideal conditions for the venue’s primary purpose of television tapings.
But the cameras were off on this night, and this allowed for a more relaxed and festive pre-New Years mood. The backstage portions of the Moody are quite cavernous, with staging areas to facilitate large stage works for theater productions, ample dressing rooms, a spacious cafeteria, and a couple of relaxed communal sitting areas. The lavatories right beside the backstage entrance smelled like they shared the same ventilation system as Willie & Co.’s congregating areas, as a contact high could be afforded if you dottled too long waiting for your chance at the paper towel dispenser.
After Amy Cook warmed up the crowd on a bitter cold night, the lights in the foyer flickered, and the gallery was packed by the time Sturgill took the stage. Tight and well-tuned from playing down-to-the-minute sets on tour with Zac Brown, Sturgill and the boys chewed through their songs like clockwork, with Simpson showing fire and animation, bounding across the large stage, stepping up on the drum riser, and punching the stops and ends of songs with his Martin acoustic’s head stock.
If Sturgill has to share the spotlight with anyone these days, it’s his guitar player Laur Joamets. “I had to go all the way to Eastern Europe to find a guitar player that plays country music,” Sturgill said to the crowd. “And I’m from Nashville.”
But there wasn’t a lot of chit chatting from Simpson, sometimes butting songs up right against each other, leaving no room for applause. This left ample space for all the important songs to be played, and some new concoctions, including a T. Rex tune incorporated into an Osborne Brothers song—the type of collaboration that has afforded Sturgill both fiery adoration and a few critics. Laur Joamets took numerous long instrumental breaks, and the crowd roared loudly when given the opportunity, including coming to their feet at the end of Sturgill’s impressive set.
Simpson’s voice sounded like it was made for the Moody Theater: rounded, bellowing, and bolstered with the weight of powerful stories behind it and an undying commitment to full effort from Sturgill the moment he takes the stage. One wouldn’t be surprised after experiencing the show if Sturgill’s voice was still echoing through that chamber, if only as ghosts of the mind, or if permanent fingerprints were left on the Moody’s walls from the performance.
After a well-apportioned intermission where the wisdom of the amount of bathroom facilities afforded to the new theater’s crowd was put to the test, Willie Nelson and his Family Band took the Austin City Limits stage like they have done so many countless times before, including for the pilot episode of what has become the longest-running live music show on television standing at some 40 years. The last few years have seen Willie’s age noticeably catching up to him, though when he decides to call on it, the flashes of high register runs or arpeggiated acoustic guitar brilliance can still be heard, though sometimes between broken phrasings and timing flubs. But to bask in Willie’s presence is what had drawn people to the performance, including some from out-of-state, and when the huge Texas flag was unfurled behind the stage and Willie struck that first chord of “Whiskey River,” the atmosphere was electric all the way through the final gospel singalong.
The only question left as Willie was singing “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’ll Fly Away” and other gospel standards was if we’d see Sturgill Simpson re-emerge to take advantage of the opportunity to share the stage with one of his biggest heroes, or would his bashful nature prevail. Nelson’s offspring, including daughter Amy Nelson, and the recently-emerging granddaughter Raelyn Nelson led a group of others of the Nelson clan out on stage to sing along with Papa Willie, but it took a while to coax Sturgill to join. Finally emerging on stage, his humility showed itself, and he was too busy looking awed by the short braided man standing a healthy elbow swing away from him to focus on finding the right pitch to actually lend anything to the performance. But that was fine, and the crowd re-welcomed Sturgill with a roar as the members of Sturgill’s band slowly joined him and the others on stage.
No more predictions are in order for Sturgill Simpson now, at least not at this very moment. 2014 finally was the year of Sturgill Simpson, validated by many opinions shared across the country music press corps building a consensus around him as the year’s critical success, and the holidays were a moment to sit back and reflect on this success and not worry about what may come next. But just like Willie in 1974 when he took the Austin City Limits stage, nobody could have imagined where he’d be bound from there. And looking at Sturgill, his future seems similarly promising and limitless.
Once again Roger Alan Wade makes his case for being one of the most criminally-underrated songwriters of our generation, releasing his newest album Bad News Knockin’ right before the end of 2014 through Johnny Knoxville Records, and rocketing himself near the top for the most notable songwriting efforts for all of last year.
As Roger will say himself, “Thank God for nepotism,” but the truth is Wade was making a name for himself from his own sweat as a songwriter in Nashville well before his crazy first cousin Johnny Knoxville was getting zapped by cattle prods, or putting Wade’s songs in his successful series of Jackass movies. The fact the two first cousins are famous (or in Wade’s case, mostly famous), is purely coincidental, and though Roger Alan Wade may not have the legacy and recognition of the Guy Clark’s and John Prine’s to the outside world (at least not yet), to others he’s a mastermind, and he continues to bolster his catalog from an undying hunger to match the licks of his songwriting heroes with each new release.
If there was a theme to Bad News Knockin’, contentment would be it. Don’t bother Wade with your schemes of how to get him to the big time, or pity him that he never made it there before. Wade is perfectly content with releasing acoustic albums that just feature him and his guitar, instead of sticking his nose in the hustle of trying to get recognized by releasing big production records, or by trying to pry the closed doors of Nashville open to land some commercially-oriented cuts in the current miserable climate.
Back in the day working for a publisher, Roger Alan Wade racked up selected songwriting credits with legends like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Hank Williams Jr., and Johnny Cash, including Hank Jr.’s #1 “Country State of Mind” from 1986. He’s been there and done that, had opportunities to rub elbows with his heroes, had some successes many songwriters and performers only dream of, and is happy now to just write songs for himself and for those who care to listen. He’ll call up his fellow Knoxville native Peewee Moore to play some lead guitar with him on a local TV or radio station, or leave town for a short stint of shows from time to time. Otherwise, he’s cool with staying at home and sewing his craft, and hoping to entice enough people to listen to keep his simple life of privacy and family afloat.
As RAW says on one of Bad News Knockin‘s offerings,I just want me a yellow house in the country, way back off the highway A swing on a screened-in front porch, a hammock in the hickory shade I guess success to some folks, ain’t the same as it is for me I’d count myself one wealthy man, for a yellow house in the country
Following this theme, Bad News Knockin’ feels like a very personal album from Wade, even more so than his recent releases like DeGuello Motel and Southbound Train that strike a much deeper chord compared to some of his earlier albums at the height of the Jackass era—albums that featured songs like the irreverent “Butt Ugly Slut” or “Fryin’ Bacon Nekkid.” In the new song “Years Ago,” Wade expends no effort to make his personal story into fiction, while “I Lived The Life” once again sounds a thankful chord for what he’s been able to accomplish in his career.I lived the life, I chased the dream. Even if I could, I wouldn’t change a thing. Been more than worth, the sacrifice. Don’t cry for me, I lived the life.
Bad News Knockin’ is reflective, but Roger’s not ready to be put out to the songwriting pasture just yet. “Red Shoes Blues” ingeniously makes use of women’s obsession with footwear into a form of flattery that will fit snug with many female listeners. He takes an older song of his called “Warm Spanish Wine” from an era when others were trying to make him into a marketable commodity, and makes it soar despite the stripped-down approach, marking not just one of the best songs, but one of the best performances of this album.
And despite the stern, almost defiant countenance Wade sports on the cover with the beads of sweat bubbling on his brow like Johnny Cash at San Quentin, and the title which seems to hint this album might be brazen and hard-edged, there’s multiple gospel moments on Bad News Knockin’; something that Wade continues to call on more and more as he ages. Using witty allusions and biblical locations to deftly craft songs that are more than just preachy sermons, these religious tunes showcase Wade’s songwriting skills just as much as his secular material.
The Roger Alan Wade proponent in me still wishes Roger had the drive to flesh out his music a little bit more to make the job of enticing folks to listen a little easier. But if you’re not intimidated to listening to the prototype, the songwriter in the raw, the words and wood and wire of an original inspiration and story and nothing more, the Roger Alan Wade experience can be quite a fulfilling one.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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In 2014, you had two previously-unknown women release towers of country music brilliance in Tami Nelison’s Dynamite! and Karen Jonas’s Oklahoma Lottery. You had folk blues songwriter Charlie Parr deliver a masterpiece in his instrumental triumph in Hollandale. You had the Swedish sister duo First Aid Kit feature what very well would had been considered an Album of the Year on any other year than this one with Stay Gold. You had Matt Woods deliver what still stands up as the high water mark for songwriting in 2014, With Love From Brushy Mountain. And Jim Lauderdale‘s I’m A Song is to blame for the best all around straightforward country and honky tonk album of the year.
But 2014 was the year of Sturgill Simpson, and if for no other reason than to head off an insurrection amongst readers that would have resulted in the calling for my head if I’d named anything else but Metamodern Sounds in Country Music to this distinction, Sturgill deserves this honor for releasing an album with huge sonic appeal, deft songwriting, a strangeness that resonates in unique and new ways never experienced before from a country music record, and for having an impact on the genre that has rarely been felt from an independent artist, and arguably never been felt in the current era.
As Saving Country Music said in the original review for the album, “With ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’, Sturgill Simpson doesn’t just capture our ears, he captures our imaginations. However misguided the notion is, most every disenfranchised country music fan harbors the idea that at some point some true country artist is going to come along that is so good, it is going to tip the scales back in the right direction. What ‘Metamodern Sounds’ does is it gives the true country music listener hope beyond the happiness the music conveys. It resolves that ever-present conflict between sticking to the traditional sound, but progressing forward.
But as also was mentioned in the review, “I still hear much room for improvement…I’m half convinced half the things he does are just to screw with all of us. Once you realize that, then you really begin to unlock the true wisdom and enjoyment in his music.” That is why this pick was not a slam dunk. Saving Country Music may have had more negative things to mention about Metamodern Sounds than any other reviewing outlet in 2014. That’s because I’ve seen what Sturgill is fully capable of, and even though Metamodern Sounds captures much of that essence, it doesn’t capture it all. Call this critical, or call this exciting, or call it intimidating, but it is the truth as I see it.
Nonetheless, even if Metamodern Sounds doesn’t deliver Sturgill at full strength, it was still the strongest performance of 2014, and not just in the humble estimation of this particular outlet, but in a virtual consensus amongst independent country music literati. Metamodern Sounds has made a indelible mark on the timeline of country music in 2014 that will hold up for the rest of history, and is etched deeper than the marks left by many other albums that hold this distinction in their respective years, leaving only one order of business left from this burgeoning country music artist: brother where you bound?
Every true music fan craves those moments when a song and story truly disarm you and make rudimentary rubble of your capacity to keep the saline fountains at bay. Fiction can sometimes achieve these results, but there’s something deep inside the listener that is sparked when they intuitively know they’re hearing a true story being told by the one who lived it. This is the key to allowing the emotions to flow with an extra ferocity.
“That’s the problem with that song. I guess it’s so much easier to write these sort of tragic love songs that I’m not afraid to talk about, but my personal history I guess is a little more scary territory,” Lydia Loveless says about Saving Country Music’s 2014 Song of the Year “Everything’s Gone,” from her album Somewhere Else released by Bloodshot Records. “It’s about my family for one reason or another losing our home, and it was probably the hardest thing I ever went through. I think it was one of the first [songs] I wrote for ‘Somewhere Else,’ and I wrote it and kind of didn’t think about it for months because I just didn’t want to, or play it for anyone. And I was playing with the band and we had drums on it, and I think I started crying and threw a fit as I’m want to do, and that’s why it ended up being so stripped down because I didn’t really want it to be touched.”
Lydia grew up on an 80-acre farm outside of Coshocton, Ohio, feeding cattle, bailing hay, and being home schooled. The home and hearth, and the kinship she felt with the land that was instilled into the very fabric of who she was from a formative age, ensured a piece of her would be left behind when the family was eventually relocated. And that wrenching, aching sense of loss and the inability to recoup that part of herself orphaned on that land that has now been pillaged and parceled is where the inspiration and emotional potency of “Everything’s Gone” comes from.
But like all great songs, “Everything’s Gone” has the capacity to mutate and fill in the crags and crevices of an individual’s own personal narrative to mean something completely different to every ear. For example my first impression of the song was one for the concern of the disappearance of open spaces for young men and women to get lost in and find themselves—almost an opposite emotion to a sense of home. And it turns out, this message is also rooted in the tune.
“I think that day I had gone hiking,” Lydia says about the day she wrote the song. “It had been so long since I had just unplugged. I was on the road all the time or constantly on the phone or on the internet, and I just went hiking and was alone with my thoughts. And I got really sad that it had been so long since I had just gone out into the woods and been alone. It just reminded me, because when I grew up that was my backyard. You could go out and watch a meteor shower and go hiking and camp and have a fire, and it’s just totally different now. And I was just thinking about the urbanization of everything. Now there’s not a lot to go to get away.”
“Everything’s Gone” could speak very intimately to people who’ve dealt with foreclosure, or the loss of anything that can never be gone back to and re-attained, and the cavalcade of emotions and imbalance this realization can result in. “Everything’s Gone” also shares its ugly realities with blistering truth, and unchecked anger.
Lord, now I’m sick of seeing the fear in my family’s eyes
I need to find the man who put it there and set his life on fire
“Everything’s Gone” affords the listener no resolution or closure. You’re left in the forlorn state, not only coldly realizing there’s no going back, but that the entire world is slowly succumbing to this fate of lost and forgotten fragments of what makes us whole in the headlong charge of priority and progress, and the blinding of rage that overtakes us when this reality sinks in.
Oh, the place where I grew up and my little brother was born
And if I strike it rich again, I’ll go and buy it all back
Well I’ll drop a bomb on that bitch and watch it turn to ash…
By the time I get the money, it will be all gone
Lord, it’s already gone
Well, by the time I get the money, it will be all gone
Lord, everything’s gone
Everything’s gone, everything’s gone
As for Lydia Loveless and the real story behind “Everything’s Gone,” she says, “I haven’t been there for almost 10 years…it’s really painful to go back, and I think I’m just a little scared. So I don’t know.”
But despite the pain and emotional distress listeners feel while listening to “Everything’s Gone,” they keep coming back to it because of the comfort of commiseration that makes music its most beautiful when it is able to covey raw pain of an artist in its purest form.
In the honesty and personal unburdening of “Everything’s Gone,” Lydia Loveless achieved the crowning moment of her young career, and the crowning achievement in song for all of 2014 … in Saving Country Music’s estimation.
Two Guns Way Up.
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If you find yourself uttering, “Man, I wish Hank3 would release something new like those first three records,” trust me, you’re not alone. A lot of the neo-traditionalist artists of the late 90′s to mid 2000′s stayed around just long enough to wet our appetites for that by-gone sound only to leave us in the lurch and looking for our next fix of that old, potent stuff. BR549 has been a long time gone, Hank3 is looping dog barks and putting out “doom sludge” albums, Lucky Tubb is nowhere to be found lately, and you can only listen to those Wayne Hancock albums so many times before you want something new. The neo-traditionalist landscape is pretty bereft these days, at least when it comes to the bigger names that meant something back in the movement’s heyday.
Joey Allcorn was another name in the mid 2000′s that if you were tired of spinning Hank3′s Lovesick, Broke, & Driftin’, or Wayne Hancock’s Thunderstorms & Neon Signs, you could pull out Allcorn’s 50 Years Too Late and feel right at home. He had that lonesome sound, that Hank Williams lineage in his style, and had collaborated with Hank3 a handful of times. You had the feeling that if the whole neo-traditional thing really hit the big time—which it felt like it was on the brink of for a while—Allcorn would be right there with the others as a staple of the subgenre.
Then who knows what happened. The whole movement got scattered to the four winds, some behind-the-scenes drama resulted in Hank3 having bad blood with Allcorn and burning that that bridge (as Hank3 is known to do, sometimes justified, maybe sometimes from being overly-sensitive), and next thing you know, you look up and it’s been almost six years since Joey Allcorn released an album.
“And the people talking about me I’m glad I gave them something to do. ‘Cause I got nothing left to prove to myself, and even less to you,” Allcorn says in the title track of his new album Nothing Left To Prove released in September with little warning, and even less fanfare—so little in fact if you weren’t looking for it you probably missed it. And what seems to be Allcorn’s present status as a musician who will take every opportunity to play he can, but is tired of trying to do it full time, is encapsulated in the title song. “Living on the road wasn’t everything I thought it would be. It’s just trying to get paid and looking for a place to sleep.”
The Columbus, GA native seems content now to play shows here and there, and be proud of being an integral part of what neo-traditionalist country was all about when it was the cool thing to listen to, and doing what he can to still serve the folks whose heart still yearns for the music. Where some of the neo-traditionalists came and went from the sound of the movement, Allcorn remains firmly ensconced in the style, with very traditional modes and styles marking his songs, yet with a little extra crunch in the lead guitar thrown in there at times just to let you know this is old music, but from the new generation.
Allcorn’s songcraft remains very much steeped in the early traditional style of country music. “When You Start Back To Wanting Me,” “Either Way You’re Gone,” “I Can’t Get Drunk Enough (to Say Goodbye)” work like great country songs have always worked: speaking to the inherent heartaches of life and alleviating some of the pain through mutual commiseration. Nothing Left To Prove turns in a solid songwriting performance, but it does feels a little front loaded, with the first few songs constituting the best offerings of the album, and the songwriting beginning to feel a little thin the farther along you go. The album also sounded a little quiet, and curiously mastered in places. But the instrumentation throughout is unbelievably spot on, and really gets your juices flowing with the neo-traditional and honky tonk sound, reminding you what was so great when that was a more prevalent style. Steel guitar, fiddle, very tasteful arrangements all compliment Joey’s songs and his lonesome voice.
Joey Allcorn may not be looking to do any more long road trips to the West Coast and back, or to challenge the Sturgill Simpson’s of the world in album sales. But with Nothing Left To Prove, he announces he’s not ready to hang it up just yet, and still enjoys feeding the hunger for the people left who can’t get enough of that lonesome, neo-traditionalist sound.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Up.
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If you’re looking for the female equivalent to Bro-Country songs, i.e. something featuring lower brow formulaic songwriting, however less frequently they may find their way onto your radio, the proper comparison would be the “attitude song.” That’s what Miranda Lambert calls it.
“I love attitude songs,” says Miranda, who is regularly regarded as the queen of the style, and whose influence as one of the highest-grossing females in country music in the last half decade has seen female country performers like Carrie Underwood and others follow suit with similar songs not putting up with crap from their men, or the women who would be inclined to steal them. Attitude songs are all about keying paint jobs, swinging baseball bats, and lighting shit on fire, all while looking fabulous and sporting perfect hair. And like Bro-Country, they regularly list off items involved in such badassedry with little or no story conveyed.
Though attitude songs may not be as prevalent or intellectually torpid as Bro-Country, they can be just as tiring. Even Miranda Lambert agrees. “They can get old if you don’t do ‘em right,” she says. “I don’t want to keep doing the same type of attitude song, I’ve got to change them up.” So her answer to this concern on her latest album Platinum is called “Little Red Wagon,” written and originally performed by fellow Oklahoma-dwelling singer and songwriter Audra Mae. It has been announced as the third single from Miranda’s latest release, to impact radio right after the holidays.
Oh, you only love me for my big sun glasses
And my Tony Lomas
I live in Oklahoma
And I’ve got long, blonde hair
And I play guitar, and I go on the road
And I do all the shit you wanna do
And my dog does tricks
And I ain’t about drama, ya’ll
I love my apron
But I ain’t your mama!
And on and on from there, with a reprise about how you can’t ride in her little red wagon because “The front seat’s broken and the axle’s draggin’” which I’m not sure lends any more point to this song.
The music of “Little Red Wagon” is unapologetically rock, with a frenetic and diverse arrangement punctuated by wild dynamics that if nothing else, gets your attention and sends the pulse racing. Arena guitar indicative of Guns & Roses weaves in and out of an extra loud drum track, while the song starts and is bisected by two ultra-hushed pianissimos. Yes “Little Red Wagon” paws for your attention with its pronounced topography and has some interesting and original textures, but it lacks in pentameter. No consistent groove emerges in the wild-ass mood swings and multiple instrumental layers, potentially a symptom of the production crew trying to pull this new version comfortably away from Audra Mae’s original.
But the one thing high-minded standards for music, and opinions peppered with musical terms like “pianissimo” can’t resolve is just how fun many people will find this song, especially amongst the female listener. This is the reason it has been slated for a single release, and will probably hold its own on the charts for a valiant run. It’s fluff, but it doesn’t try to portray itself as anything but.
Miranda Lambert’s Platinum has become mainstream country’s default critically-considered album in 2014 despite songs like “Little Red Wagon” and “Somethin’ Bad” that have little to no nutritional value being put out there as singles. Though deeper listeners may complain why tracks like “Hard Staying Sober” and “Holding On To You” remain shelved, the point of singles is to draw the most attention as possible to albums and artists, and “Little Red Wagon” will most certainly do that.
This is not a good song, or at least not a good version of it. But there’s much greater sins out there to get worked up about. Let the ladies have their fun.
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1 Gun Up for being fun, involved, and invigorating.
1 Gun Down for being frenetic, pointless, and patently un-country.
From crude videos taken on somebody’s phone, to full production videos with scripts and actors and sets, to animated shorts and everything in between, you never know what’s going to capture the imagination and become the perfect compliment to a song in the visual form. No question in the age of YouTube that there’s no dearth of material to oogle at, but what breaks through the crush of visual material to be called the best in 2014?
9. The Whiskey Shivers – “Free”
The Whiskey Shivers will probably never top the madness that is their video from 2011 for “Gimmie All Your Lovin’” that has now received over half a million views (still don’t know how the hell they made that), but their new video for “Free” off their self-titled album does its best to capture the band’s fun loving nature.
Directed & Edited by Rob Wadleigh
Director of Photography – Ryan Firth
8. Don Williams – “I’ll Be Here In The Morning”
The fortuitous call was made when Don Williams went into the studio to record his Saving Country Music Album of the Year-nominated Reflections, to fit out the studio with a camera crew and release the videos intermittently afterwards. The result has been some really excellent moments captured on film, but none better than when Don Williams covered this Townes Van Zandt classic.
7. Steelism – “Marfa Lights”
Yes, very silly, quirky, and maybe even hipster-ish, the video for sideman duo Steelism’s “Marfa Lights” still shows a lot of imagination and creativity in a unique approach. A fun watch.
Directed by Stewart Copeland.
6. Florida Georgia Line – “Dirt”
Act appalled all you want, but it deserves to be here. A lot of heart went into this video.
Director: Nigel Dick
5. Sturgill Simpson – “Turtles All The Way Down”
Despite what shallow listeners will tell you, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is not a psychadelic record, but the video for “Turtles All The Way Down” certainly is.
Directed and edited by Graham Uhelski
4. First Aid Kit – “My Silver Lining”
Something that First Aid Kit has that virtually no other artist or band in the independent roots realm of a similar or bigger size can match is a library of videos that dazzle, entertain, and incite wonder like little else you can find. It’s an attention to video making as a creative medium in itself with no boundaries that gives their music an extra special love. The release of a new First Aid Kit video is grounds for an immediate stop down, and not just their tightly-woven and intricate big-production music videos with multiple scenes and settings that cast the duo in regal and awe-inducing moments, but with the sincerity and talent this sister duo from Sweden displays, even a short acoustic performance in a publishing office or a covered wayside is something that can enthrall and shuttle you off into a wormhole of escapism. After all, it was a simple video of the duo singing a Fleet Foxes cover that is given credit for launching their career.
Director: Elliott Sellers
Producer: Courtney Davies
3. Willie Watson – “Mexican Cowboy”
Sometimes the best videos are live ones that capture and moment in time and the character of the artist so perfectly, a big production could never do it justice. When former Old Crow Medicine Show member Willie Watson performs his traditional folk tunes, he becomes so immersed in character, so stern-faced an honest to the song, it is truly something to behold.
Filmed for The Bluegrass Situation at Counterpoint Records in Franklin Village, Los Angeles.
Directed and recorded by Ben Guzman
2. Ray Benson & Willie Nelson – “It Ain’t You”
The music, and both Ray Benson’s and Willie’s performances are chilling enough, but the video for “It Ain’t You” takes it a step further, fully understanding what’s at the heart of the song, and pulling out all the stops to not only do the song justice, but enhance the experience through the visual medium. The wisdom of knowing what the simple sight of Willie’s battle-worn hands can stir in the beholder, while crafting a way to capture the spirit of the long-time friendship between Ray and Willie so purely is worth watching even if the song itself doesn’t strike a particular chord with the listener. (read full review)
“It Ain’t You” was written by Waylon Jennings and Gary Nicholson.
Video directed by Aaron Brown of Onion Creek Productions.
1. The Tillers – “Willy Dear”
By choosing animation for the “Willy Dear” video, it enhances the imaginative qualities already inherent in the song, and allows the story to unfold without the anachronistic limitations of a live video. The simplicity of the animation aids in this process, while the vibrancy still present in the color and the expansiveness of the landscapes emphasizes the wonder in the story itself.
The video also helps fill in some of the gaps in the narrative that the verses didn’t have the capacity to carry. And best of all, it illustrates that “Willie Dear” is not really about Willie Thompson, his love Lizzy, or the tragedy that befell them because of mistaken circumstances. It is about old abandoned houses, and the stories they tell. (read full review)
Animation by Christof Heuer
Independent music fans love to say “90% of what the mainstream does is crap!” Well then it would stand to reason that 10% actually has some value. And in the interest of pragmatism and inclusiveness that is vital to the charge of Saving Country Music, it is important to not ignore when Music Row and mainstream artists get it right, but to celebrate these moments and achievements in hopes it breeds more of the same in the future.
Mainstream albums are given an equal chance in Saving Country Music’s end-of-year tabulations, so much so that in 2012, a mainstream artist and former American Idol alumni in the form of Kellie Pickler and her album 100 Proof won Album of the Year. Though maybe a stretch to call it mainstream, the Big Machine-signed Mavericks also beat out everyone else with their album In Time in 2013. But 2014 did not see one mainstream album make the end-of-year lists, so in the spirit of equal time, here are some of the best albums in the mainstream in 2014.
And please, to the diehard indies and purists, please don’t complain why we’re highlighting these albums here. If you want to see what comes most recommended by Saving Country Music, please check out the Album of the Year Nominees, and the 50 Essential Albums List.
And please feel free to share what you believe was the best in mainstream country below.
Zac Brown Band – The Grohl Sessions Vol. 1
“The Zac Brown Band finds themselves in a position that most any other band or artist would be lying if they said they weren’t envious of: owning their own label, calling their own shots, and nestled in a niche carved out in the music world where they’re beholden to no industry or radio play or sound to ensure butts fill the seats at shows. At the same time they’ve enjoyed the gracious support of the country music industry, while still openly admitting they veer much closer to the Southern rock side of things, giving the band the latitude to experiment and collaborate outside the genre while receiving much more interest than flack.
“The songs of The Grohl Sessions are marvelously complex, yet still with a heart, still with a pentameter that never stops beating, keeping the music in a pocket, and the ear enraptured. It is a fair argument to say that country hardliners regularly bemoan hip-hop treatments to songs, but when it comes to blending rock & roll into country, it is more often given a pass. The Grohl Sessions are certainly guilty of being way more rock than country, with elements of blues and Motown soul. But nobody ever accused Zac of being country, and just because it isn’t country, doesn’t mean it’s not good.” (read full review)
Caitlyn Smith – Everything To You
(Note: Depending on your perspective, Caitlyn could either be considered mainstream or independent. But since she’s written songs for major heavyweights and works mostly within the Music Row system, we’ll consider her mainstream for this exercise.)
“When you talk about an artist known as a songwriter first, you tend to look for the strength in the lyric. But Caitliyn Smith is very much a multi-tool performer, and her vocals can rival any in country music’s top tier, and she’s a great musician as well. Her style is very sensible—country pop in the traditional sense, with rising choruses, juicy melodies, and familiar themes of love, loss, and hope. But similar to how Caitlyn Smith songs are the ones artists and managers gravitate toward when they’re looking for something with more body beyond a smash radio hit, instilled in all of Caitlyn’s work is a sincerity, authenticity, and the ends of country roots sticking out from the surface.
“2013 was considered by many to be the ‘Year of The Woman’ in country music from the concentration of forward-thinking and nourishing projects proffered to the public by females who could nip at the edges of the mainstream, but still find friendly ears in the independent world. Caitlyn Smith may be a year too late to be considered in that class, but she belongs with the other ladies of country music leadership trying to keep at least a modicum of respect in the genre, even if those women struggle compared with their male counterparts in chart performance and cash flow.”
Dierks Bentley – Riser
Dierks Bentley’s Riser is an inspired, rising effort from stem to stern, with sweeping compositions that generally convey this uplifting, airy and expansive condition, despite a sorrowful and reflective tone beneath the surface. At the risk of sounding cliché, Riser was cut during an emotional time, bookened by the death of Dierks’ father, and the birth of his son, and this type of environment created a work that was somehow both secondary, yet keenly focused. He brought his personal life with him to the studio, and it is reflected even in some of the more commercial material, in a drive to make a project bigger than himself.
Is Riser good ol’ country music done the right way? Of course not. This is a country-inspired rock album. But it is a good one nonetheless that is well-made, inspired, heartfelt, and worth a Hamilton or heavy rotation from your streaming service of choice if you know what you’re getting in to.
Garth Brooks – Man Against Machine
“The truth is, Garth was never going to live up to the lofty expectations many were foisting upon his re-entry into the country fold. Forget the naysayers who still can’t get over his high wire act at Texas Stadium or the Chris Gaines gimmick, there was some thought that Garth may be the only one left with the star power to reignite the spark of true country music in the mainstream once again, however ironic this may be given Garth’s history. But in hindsight, this was sort of like thinking Mike Tyson could still be heavyweight champion in the early 00′s, or that Brett Favre could still win a Super Bowl.
“The purists will pan it because it’s Garth, and the mainstream may mostly ignore it because Garth is such an unknown quantity to their youthful demo. And everyone will question the wisdom of releasing ‘People Loving People’ as a single or the somewhat silly cover art. But Man Against Machine is a solid Garth record, with some sappy moments, some rock and R&B moments, but mostly just good contemporary Garth country worthy of at least an open-minded listen.” (read full review)
Maddie & Tae - Maddie & Tae EP
“Make no mistake, the emergence of Maddie & Tae is the result of tactical gaming of country music’s notoriously malleable masses by label types, but that doesn’t mean that the music can’t be any good. ‘Girl In A Country Song’ really didn’t help answer the question of, “Who are Maddie & Tae?” It exacerbated it. Were the hip-hop elements simply there for irony? Were these girls really influenced heavily by classic country as they said?
“So now the young duo has released a four-song EP, and all of a sudden a brand new set of parameters emerge. You do hear those classic country leanings in the songwriting. You hear fiddle solos and steel guitar by god. You hear two girls singing in close harmony with heavy twang about similar themes once championed by Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn. And you begin to realize that whether Maddie & Tae are a machination of Big Machine Records or not, their music truly is living up to the more traditional and tasteful approach they were touted as embodying when they first emerged.” (read full review)
Mary Sarah – Bridges
Close your eyes for a second, and envision a world where a young beautiful bubbly female star—like Taylor Swift maybe—releases a completely traditional country album, not of her own music, but of some of the standards from country music’s sainted past, and not just by herself, but as duets with the very stars that made the songs popular in the first place; the same stars who are very much being forgotten in modern country’s obsession with youth. Think of the possibility of how this could open up an entire new world of music to listeners who are too young to remember where country music came from, ostensibly bridging the future and the past.
Now, open your eyes back up, and you’re ready to enter the world of Mary Sarah and Bridges.
Other Decent Albums
Eric Paslay -Eric Paslay
It’s real easy to lump Eric Paslay and his debut self-titled album in with the Bro-Country crowd because of singles like “Song About A Girl” and “Friday Night,” but a deeper listen to the project reveals a lot of depth of songwriting and some tasteful arrangement and instrumentation. A song like “Country Side of Heaven” isn’t too bad.
Jon Pardi -Write You A Song
Probably a little more fairly lumped in with Bro-Country than Eric Paslay, but still with much more to offer than most of the mainstream.
Tim McGraw – Sundown Heaven Town
Not a good album, but was surprisingly more good than bad from the Big Machine artist. (read full review)
Brett Eldredge’s Bring You Back isn’t completely terrible either.
Best Song – Carrie Underwood’s “Something In The Water”
“A wide, sweeping undertaking, ‘Something In The Water’ sees Carrie Underwood carve out the sweet spot for her voice and make an inspiring and faith-based composition the vessel to illustrate the mighty ferocity of her God-given vocal prowess, along with instilling the moments with an elegance and grace that in unison swell to achieve one awe-inspiring performance height.
“’Something In The Water’ is purely pop country from a stylistic standpoint, but draws heavily from country’s Gospel roots and the ritual of river baptisms to create the compelling narrative at the song’s heart. Though the “something in the water” colloquialism is not wholly unique in this context, the content is nonetheless refreshing in the way it disregards all concern for trends or tropes and instead shows confidence in Carrie’s voice to carry a tune to the top levels of widespread appeal. Resolving with the verses of “Amazing Grace” intermixed with the song’s melody, ‘Something In The Water’ traces a lineage directly back to the very primitive beginnings of country music, intertwining old roots among the song’s otherwise pristine and nouveau passages.”
Very, very powerful. (read full review)
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And yes, if we’re talking about the top songs Florida Georgia Line’s “Dirt” deserves a mention.
If you’re looking for names to populate your most anticipated projects to be released in 2015, putting Mo Pitney at or near the top would be a savvy choice. With a one in a million country voice conveyed in a smoothness we haven’t heard since Don Williams, Mo Pitney is a chill-inducing traditional country artist with a succulent pentameter and delivery, and a songwriter’s pen engorged with cutting and resonant lines and stories. A handsome young man with nothing but a promising future in country music ahead of him, Pitney could become one of the fore bearers to making true country cool again like a modern-day Randy Travis.
Mo Pitney has been showcasing his songs and voice through traditional avenues over the past few years and has shined every time. A January 2013 episode of Pitney with mentor Bill Anderson by his side on RFD-TV’s excellent showcase Larry’s Country Diner has since become a must-see installment. From his originals like “I Didn’t Wake Up This Morning,” to his cover of Keith Whitley’s “Miami, My Amy,” the cat was out of the bag about Mo Pitney’s country music powers after the show. He was signed to Curb Records by May of this year, and made his Opry debut on June 20th care of Bill Anderson, dazzling the crowd and receiving a standing ovation for his song “Cleanup on Aisle Five.”
Ahead of his much-anticipated album, Pitney has released the first single simply called “Country” co-written with Anderson and Bobby Tomberlin. Smartly crafted to where it captures a relevant sentiment without being a party to pandering to anything or straying away from Pitney’s core, “Country” highlights Mo’s promise of being a classic-sounding artist with the ability to capture a mainstream audience. Authentic as the day is long, Pitney touches on what could be considered the listing off of countryisms, but avoids all of the obvious ones to take a more subdued and warm thematic approach to explaining what “country” really is.
For country music to extricate itself from the iron grasp of Bro-Country and the overriding influence of other genres, it’s going to need artists who don’t need to rely on gimmicks and trends to find appeal, but that can champion the virtues of country itself and illustrate its charisma to a new generation of listeners. Mo Pitney is an artist with the promise and the proper tools to do this very thing.
Cody Johnson is country. There’s no denying that. But there’s a mantra around Saving Country Music which states that just because something is real country, doesn’t mean it is real good. Just as if something isn’t real country doesn’t mean it’s real bad. People tend to be fans of music first, and then their loyalties break towards certain genres. And even though most of the business conducted around here centers around country music, the underlying loyalty is to music with soul, not just a certain sound.
I’ve received more requests to comment on Cody Johnson’s music in 2014 than any other artist. Meanwhile my status of staying mum on him has caused some to question whether I actually care about country music, others to question the legitimacy of of flying the “Saving Country Music” banner, and still others have come out saying point blank Saving Country Music must be a fraud for not discussing the Texas singer. Most requests are punctuated with caps locked proclamations of how Cody Johnson is REAL country, which over the years has unfortunately become a marker for music that tries really hard to prove how country it is, while leaving things like taste and originality behind.
Cowboy Like Me is country, yes. This is a Texas artist who grew up in Huntsville and was home schooled and spent much of his time hunting, fishing, and singing at church. Cowboy Like Me utilizes as much or more fiddle and steel guitar as any album released in the last year or so, and Cody’s singing style features a sharp twang punctuating songs dyed in themes of country life.
Cowboy Like Me also features a lot of loud, Stratocaster-style cliché rock guitar, formulaic themes and movements, rising choruses indicative of commercial-oriented music looking for radio play, incessant references to how country Cody Johnson is no different than what can be found on the latest albums from Florida Georgia Line or Jason Aldean, and possibly most disappointing, what sounds like one of the most egregious deployments of Auto-Tune I’ve heard this side of George Strait’s final concert album.
All of this combines to make Cody Johnson and Cowboy Like Me a mixed bag at best, and not wanting to be the bearer of bad news or the one to break the heart of a Cody Johnson fan, I felt avoiding him, especially when there’s so much other music out there to talk about, was probably the best course of action. Because overall, Cody Johnson is not the enemy, he’s an ally. If I turn on my radio, I sure as hell would rather hear Cody Johnson coming out compared to whatever Music Row is peddling, or if I’m in a bar filled with music fans, I’m going to gravitate toward Cody Johnson fans way before the people in Florida Georgia Line T-shirts. But in the face of criticisms for remaining so quiet on this artist, here are my opinions, open and honest, be damned the popularity or reception of them.
I wonder if Dale Watson, Jason Eady, or even Marty Stuart would label Cody Johnson REAL country. When the most striking characteristic of your music is overdriven arena rock guitar and the Auto-Tune is so obvious, it leaves little that is REAL or country except for some of the buried instrumentation and the lyrics. Cowboy Like Me makes a headlong effort to prove how country it is, and for many ears, it worked. But if I had to label this music, I would call it commercial country: More country-sounding than Music Row material, yet still with many of the same sonic hooks and lyrical tropes indicative of the mainstream world.If you give a cowboy a truck on a Friday night He’ll pull a $100 bill from a coffee can Spray the mud off of them tires Drop $20 in the tank, save the rest for beer So all you girls in here need to know this
And as much as Cody Johnson fans like to paint him as the scrappy underdog independent artist who needs support from places like Saving Country Music, he’s won big endorsement deals from Bud Light, Wrangler, and other corporate sponsors. Hey, good for him. It’s great Cody has found a way to support himself with his music. But just like many elements of his sound, Cody Johnson’s independent status is not exactly what it’s sold to be.
One of the redeeming points for Cody’s music can be found in the writing of his songs. Where some of the bigger numbers not only feel quite cliché, they also feel very stuck in the mid to late 90′s as far as style—not modern enough to feel relevant to today, but not classic or traditional enough to appeal to that crowd either. Meanwhile some of the lyrical hooks and payoffs fall flat, like the line “Even My pain is hurtin’” from the song “Hurtin,’” as if this poor attempt at a double entendre is something to be considered “deep.” Nonetheless, songs like “Bottle It Up,” “Holes,” and even the opening numbers of “Dance Her Home” and “Me and My Kind” are decently-written songs, even if they do have that 90′s-era cheese as a character trait.
Some will vehemently deny that there’s any Auto-Tune on this album whatsoever, and even if this is true, the engineer on this project should still be fired from how ultra-polished and digitized Cody Johnson’s voice sounds on the finished product, whatever enhancements were employed during the mixing and mastering process. Please understand, I’m not criticizing Cody’s prowess as a vocalist whatsoever. By all accounts, whether fronting a band, or going out on stage with just an acoustic guitar, Cody Johnson can send hearts stirring with his voice. But during too many moments to list on this album, the sharp-edged mark left by audio enhancement drains any life in the performance or lyric, and really erodes any authenticity this project tries to convey. Some listeners won’t be able to hear the enhancement, but Cody’s first verse on “Me and My Kind” might be the most blaring example of Auto-Tune, or some other perfecting filter I’ve ever heard on a studio album.
Cowboy Like Me is too polished, too perfect, too pandering to radio to get too excited about as a vehicle to save country music. Should people be embarrassed for liking Cody Johnson or this album? Of course not, because in the end it is undoubtedly a better, healthier country music option than most of what Music Row is serving for dinner. But I would be lying if I said I thought Cowboy Like Me was a good album, or even REAL country.
1 Gun Up for some well-written songs ideas and some good country instrumentation.
1 Gun Down for all the rock guitar, cliché country lyrics and modes, and Auto-Tune.
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It’s Corb Lund’s strong ties to the authentic agrarian lifestyle on the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rocky Mountains that gives his music a lived-in perspective unique to a man who has his calloused fingers deep in what he sings about, and then marries these sentiments with his cunning use of language indicative of the old cowboy poets that has made Corb a country music treasure beyond Alberta and his Canadian homeland. Only a man who’s experienced the rigors and the loneliness of real ranch life can write formidable songs like the aching “September” or the humorous “Cows Around” found on his 2012 studio release Cabin Fever, and now he intermingles the inherent forlornness of life with the very true realities of equestrian duties in the new Christmas song “Just Me and These Ponies (for Christmas This Year).”
Christmas music is such a dicey proposition, and the farther you get away from the festive frau into either the gruffy country gut where sleigh bells sound grating, or the anti commercialization-leaning commoners of independent and Americana music, you tend to find even less reception for the annual December earaches. But none of this deterred New West Records from commissioning many of their own artists like John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Valerie June, and Nikki Lane, along with unwrapping some cataloged material from people like Johnny Cash and The Band to comprise the An Americana Christmas album released for this new holiday season. Corb Lund takes the point in promoting the album release with this new single, and a new video for his particular selection.
“Just Me and These Ponies” is a Christmas song for people who do not like Christmas songs, but still like country music and Corb Lund. And if you do happen to dig on a little ring ting tingling, you might find something to appreciate here too, even if the mood and perspective Corb works in is a dour one. Land locked in snow in the great frozen north, with plans either not laid or canceled for all of his familial cohorts, Corb tells the story of the lonely rancher trying to find some semblance of companionship from his stable of trusty steeds during a frigid Christmas holiday. Though the song is certainly written from some of Lund’s own experiences, the vessel of the story is an 80-year-old man snowed into his wooden ranch home. The music rises to to meet the passive emotional direst in the words with strings and comparably aching chord movements, while any sleigh bells are relegated to the extremities of the very beginning and end, almost as irony, or to further draw out the emotional tinge of the composition.
“Just Me and These Ponies” also utilizes a well-crafted video that contrasts the upper crust tuxedoed appearance of Corb in an antiseptic television studio, while an old man manning the wooden stables out in the cold ponders his lonely Yuletide fate.
It may not give Bing Crosby or Roy Rogers a run for their money, but “Just Me and These Ponies” might find warm company in the hearts of those who loathe such caroling, or don’t have any company of their own. And like all great Christmas songs, it may do so for years to come.
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In 2014, Saving Country Music reviewed more albums than ever before, and correspondingly the much-anticipated Essential Albums list has also been expanded all the way to the half century mark. Yes, there are still some album that were reviewed or not reviewed that are still worthy of acclaim, but as with all things, a line must be drawn somewhere. You are encouraged to leave your thoughts on what albums you feel were essential from 2014 below.
Also, since no significant mainstream project made any of this year’s end-of-year’s lists, Saving Country Music intends to post a separate list highlighting some of the best of the mainstream in 2014.
PLEASE NOTE: This list only includes albums that have been reviewed so far. There are a more good and important albums from 2014 that have yet to be reviewed, and that will hopefully be reviewed shortly and added to this list if deemed fit.
PLEASE NOTE: None of the Album of the Year Nominees are included on this list, so look over there before complaining about omissions. After the first 5 albums considered the “Most Essential,” the albums are listed mostly in the order the albums were reviewed, not in order based on recommendation/quality/etc.
MOST ESSENTIAL – Doug Seegers – Going Down to the River
It very well may be true that Doug Seeger’s story could be anyone’s, and that you could crash the streets of Nashville, Austin, New York, or Los Angeles, and put together an entire roster of remarkable talent that is currently sleeping on the streets, as even more worthy musicians sit teetering on the brink of homelessness themselves because they’ve been overlooked by the industry. But that doesn’t make Doug Seeger’s talent any less worthy of being singled out as it has, and as Going Down To The River attests, any and all praise Seegers has been showered with over the last six months and counting is worthy and warranted. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL - Kelsey Waldon – The Gold Mine
This petite little native Kentuckian rears back and gives you twelve new original songs on her album The Gold Mine that rivals most any other batch of tunes from any other female or male for that matter from this calendar year. Strikingly traditional, yet still fresh feeling with enough evolved moments to be connected to the current mood, The Gold Mine is a boon of audio treasures mined from the great American music unknown.
It may seem almost intimidating to navigate through all the worthy female country and roots artists you can resign your music time to these days. But if your leanings are more towards traditional country, Kelsey Waldon and The Gold Mine aren’t just the perfect starting point, they’re the current apex. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL - Luke Bell- Don’t Mind If I Do
Luke Bell is all peeling paint, and plaid jackets that smell like old men. He won’t wow you with his originality, but his authentic interpretation of classic country sounds and modes is uncanny. This is one of those albums that right after you push play, you find yourself saying, “Yes, this is what I’m talking about.”
Luke Bell and Don’t Mind If I Do prove that no matter what dispersions they may cast under the name of country music, no matter how many cool old building they may bulldoze, no matter how many traditions they may burn, and no matter how many times they try to tell you classic country is no longer relevant, it will always remain alive, harbored in the hearts of its six string-toting, singing shepherds, and the crowds that gather to hear them. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL - Jason Eady – Daylight & Dark
If you were asked to populate a list of current country music artists that with no frills and no variations lay down country music as country music was meant to be, Jason Eady would very have to be at or near the top of your list. And if you found yourself beset on all sides by ravenous legions of flesh-eating pop country music fans whose only bane was the authentic sound of true country music being blared in their general direction, Daylight & Dark just might be your ideal go to to win your ultimate escape.
Sure, when you get this deep into the essence of true country music, you’re going to leave some folks behind. But Daylight & Dark isn’t for them, it’s for the folks that were left behind by what they now call country music many years ago. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL - Joseph Huber – The Hanging Road
Huber was known for his breakneck banjo and as one of the primary songwriters for the .357 String Band, but when he went the solo route, suddenly his deftness as a composer shined through with such blinding insight and poetry, he abruptly elevated himself from a superstar picker with some cool songs to something worthy of great acclaim.
Joesph’s third album The Hanging Road is his most ambitious release yet, heavy with musical mastery and weighty themes, bred from the fiddle that Joseph Huber has shown favor to recently. The Hanging Road is an exposition of Huber’s multi-talented musical skill set, engaging and vibrant, yet humble and rootsy as he takes his country, folk, bluegrass and blues influences into heavy account. (see album premier)
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***REMEMBER: Album of the Year Candidates are not included on this list***
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Willie Nelson – Band of Brothers
Let’s face it. Willie Nelson could take his sweaty, old man-smelling headband off, slingshot it out to center stage, and it would still be more enriching than what most of modern country radio has to offer. Simply the tone of his voice immediately puts the inertia of nearly a century of noble contributions to country music behind whatever he does. A few plucks of his guitar “Trigger,” and the woody tones can can make you break out in bone-deep shivers. Just the visage of Willie—the Pocahontas braids and the folds of wisdom feathered by white whiskers enveloping one of the world’s most respected faces—commands immediate reverence, and a warm feeling usually reserved only for the proximity of close family. (read full review)
Whitey Morgan – Born, Raised & LIVE in Flint
Born, Raised, & LIVE From Flint captures a well-seasoned 78′s band with a couple of extra pieces like harmonica and organ/piano for good measure reprising Whitey’s most popular songs with a live energy any studio effort just can’t match. Along with being a live album, you could also consider this a Greatest Hits package from the first half decade-plus of the band.
The fact that Whitey Morgan & The 78′s are good live is one of the reasons they could go darn near half a decade now without releasing any new music, yet still build up their legacy and fan base to the point where they’ve never been bigger. Born, Raised, & LIVE gives hardcore Whitey fans a home version of the madness and magic that sets the hair of honky-tonk crowds on fire all across the country and beyond. (read full review)
Arlo McKinley – Arlo McKinley & The Lonesome Sound
Unless you’re clued into the right sectors of the Cincinnati music scene, his name is likely one of a stranger. But just as music worth hearing tends to do, it has slowly been bubbling up from word of mouth until some of those mouths have begun to speak about this record as one of the best music offerings all year.
McKinley’s ear for matching emotion with sound is quite skilled. Even the more upbeat-sounding numbers like “Don’t Need to Know” or the pounding final track “Dark Side of the Street” deliver a bravely vulnerable and depressing account of the life and times of this adept Ohio songwriter. It takes courage to unburden your soul and air your personal frailties in the way Arlo McKinley has done in this album, and it takes insight and study to do it in a way that sounds so so good. (read full review)
Adam Hood – Welcome to the Big World
Adam Hood did his time on big stages, gave his shot to Nashville where he still haunts songwriting rounds with some of his friends, and his mark will forever be left on the music even if his pen fell silent tomorrow. But now he seems content with the world and his place in it.
It was a random performance at the Tavern In The Gruene that landed Adam Hood on the greater country music map, but the songwriter never left the spirit of the intimate performance and the conveyance of a personal feeling that spoke to Miranda Lambert that night, and still rings pure and potent in the 11 tracks of Welcome to the Big World. (read full review)
Wade Bowen – Wade Bowen
Ahead of this self-titled release, the buzz was immense. There was a sense this wasn’t going to be simply another Wade Bowen album—that his experiences of the last few years helped Wade see himself for who he really is, instead of who everyone else wants him to be. Two songs in, and this album already delivers on any promises and expectations preceding it.
Releasing a self-titled album seven albums deep into your career is making a statement. “This is me,” Wade Bowen is saying, and with a cadre of great songs turned in on this album, “me” in regards to Wade Bowen is something worth listening to. (read full review)
Those Poor Bastards – Vicious Losers
Imagine condensing the dark sentiments from all of the early country pioneers together, and adding a few new methods of composition and sound from more modern apparitions such as Tom Waits and Nick Cave, and you have a sound that however niche it might be, has cast a wide net of loyal parishioners all over the world who collect Those Poor Bastards’ short run colored vinyl projects and pour over their artistically-oriented music as fine art, no matter how hauntingly it may screech and moan to get its dreadful point across.
Words and textures are one in the same with Those Poor Bastards, and one thing Lonesome Wyatt can never get enough credit for is his prowess as a vocalist that is virtually unparalleled in conveying mood and character with such range. (read full review)
Stoney LaRue – Aviator
With his new album Aviator, you not only get that great, signature Stoney LaRue sound, you get it with Stoney and all the involved parties buying in by not just showing confidence, but even showing a little boldness and willingness to do some things a little offbeat, run some songs together and carry others out a little longer than they should be, and this all results in that enriching Stoney LaRue mood becoming even more enhanced.
Aviator is one of those albums that defines a career when many of the Red Dirt originators are growing long in the tooth, and a lot of Texas country headliners are letting the Nashville influence seep in a little too much. (read full review)
Eliot Bronson – Eliot Bronson
This is the type of album we wished all our favorite old songwriters would make again. This is the type of album that made us first love all of those old songwriters.
You get the sense listening to this album that Eliot Bronson is not just releasing his latest album, but the one he sacrificed pieces of his soul to make. This is “the one” so to speak, and that sense of purpose, if not desperation and pent up frustrations at being a 30-something songwriter still struggling to find his place and the proper attention from the public results in a passion that is palpable, and music that is memorable. (read full review)
Shakey Graves – And The War Came
How to evolve into a full band setting while still holding onto what won you such rabid grassroots support was the precarious challenge Shakey Graves was asked to pull off with this new Dualtone release And The War Came, and it’s what he accomplishes with such alacrity, the listener remains delightfully unaware any such challenge even existed. You’re simply listening to Shakey Graves blossom from an obscure one man band for people in the know, to an artist worthy of a wide ear who could and should help define what the vanguard of roots music is in 2014.
And The War Came is tell tale folk wayfaring blues with a dash of country roots, but like all artists who in turn help define their epoch in music, Shakey Graves elevates himself beyond definition. (read full review)
JP Harris & The Tough Choices – Home Is Where The Hurt Is
If you’re looking for a brand of country music that is country and country only, not country rock, country punk, “evolved” country, alt-country or Americana, then J.P. Harris & The Tough Choices just might be right in your wheelhouse. J.P. lets it be known he’d rather you leave your hyphenated country labels and long-winded qualifiers clear of what he does. And when you listen to his music, that’s exactly what you get: country music as the original concept of what the term “country” implies with very little wiggle room.
“For the last 50 years in American history, country music is the one thing that is universally identifiable as an American soundtrack, as an American kind of music. More than any other type of exclusively American music—old rock and roll, old black blues, old-time bluegrass or fiddle music—I think that country music more broadly represents a bigger segment of people in America. Keeping that tradition alive and seeing that country music has played an amazing role in unifying different segments politically and culturally of American people, it’s worth fighting to keep that identifiable.” (read JP Harris Interview)
Marty Stuart – Saturday Night / Sunday Morning
I don’t know how Marty Stuart does it. He’s like Gandalf on the back of his white steed, galloping here and there and everywhere in his pursuit to save country music. He’s scouring the country to secure important country music artifacts for preservation. He’s opening a cultural center in his hometown. He’s starring in The Marty Stuart Show and touring constantly. And here he is releasing a double album through his Superlatone record label.
Once again Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives prove they are at the core of keeping the traditions of country music alive, while doing so in a manner that is energetic, inviting, informed, and broad-based where people of all stripes—the Saturday night and Sunday morning people—can come together and enjoy the gift of good country music together. (read full review)
Sweet GA Brown – Wordsmith
Sweet GA Brown is the real deal when it comes to songwriters—sweating under a blue collar all day to earn the right to sing in swill joints at night. His music emanates from the small town of Ringgold, GA just outside of Chattanooga; that’s the Georgia-Tennessee-Bama region that has seen the rise to other songwriters who like to cut their hard-hitting realism with humor like Roger Alan Wade.
Sweet GA Brown and Wordsmith are a pleasant surprise and shouldn’t be frowned upon because of somewhat crude production, potty mouth language, and religious leanings. Within this music is the message of living life with a grin on your face and kindness in your heart, and no matter what your stripes, that’s a message that can resonate with all of us. (read full review)
The Whiskey Shivers – The Whiskey Shivers
What the band was lacking heretofore was a really good record to represent the energy they ignite on stage for the folks who wanted to take the Whiskey Shivers home with them. The few homespun offerings available at the merch table over the years had a lot of spirit, but did not do their live show justice. So for this effort they solicited the services of rising Americana star Robert Ellis as a producer, and set out to make what they hoped to be their definitive studio album that would set them apart from the string band hordes. I’m happy to report this album does just that.
Taming the beast without destroying its wild wonder is what this self-titled LP accomplishes, and it should frame the Whiskey Shivers as one of the string bands worthy of more wide, national recognition as young band on the rise. (read full review)
Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’
Lee Ann Womack has earned the listening public’s undivided attention already from her years of stellar contributions, but this one has a little more special meaning for Womack since it is her first release without a major label, and a release that helps rate of progress for both women and traditional country artists looking to revitalize their place to a wider audience.
There may be a few more albums that are better than The Way I’m Livin’ that will be released this year, but none that are this good that will reach as many ears. Lee Ann Womack is a heavyweight for women, for hard country, and now for independent artists, and with this Sugar Hill release she releases and lands a haymaker. (read full review)
Michael Goodman – Unbreakable Heart
Unbreakable Heart almost feels like two separate albums fashioned together. Though “rockabilly” may be the easy way to describe the one half, this album is a little less Brian Setzer and Reverend Horton Heat, and a little more Nick Curran and JD McPherson. But where Michael Goodman won over this critic was with his country fare. Coming at you hard and straight, this is traditional country music in every sense, yet approached with a freshness and enthusiasm so it doesn’t feel drabby or anachronistic.
Like walking into Sun Studios circa 1956, Michael Goodman and Unbreakable Heart take you back to a time when the music of American was uncorrupted, the sentiments were sincere, and the promise was unending. (read full review)
Otis Gibbs – Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth
A troubadour in every sense of the word, Otis Gibbs is an artist who can inspire even the most timid among us to shush a burly bar troll talking over one of his performances. This is music to lean in and listen to. This is music to get lost in as the lives of characters you’ve never heard of before become as intimate and familiar as family in the span of four minutes, until you find yourself weeping at their struggles, celebrating their victories, and worrying about their fate.
Otis Gibbs is a storyteller’s storyteller, and one that makes you see life unfurling in poetry and prose. He may never tell his stories to the wide masses, but the ones wise enough to lean in and listen will find riches and wisdom no man would ever dare lay a monetary value on. (read full review)
Justin Payne – No Place Lower Than High
From the fertile Outlaw country ground that comprises the hills and hollers of Boone County, West Virginia comes a homespun, but inspired and deftly-written insight into the American experience called No Place Lower Than High. Composed and performed by the virtual unknown singer and songwriter Justin Payne, this no budget project cut in a 100-year-old coal camp house is rough-hewn, scratchy, and sometimes hard to listen to through the production shortcomings. But hiding under all of the coal dust is a soul-bearing, bare-chested, and unfettered account of one man’s dreams and demons more than worthy of listening in on.
No Place Lower Than High is a superb underground gem sifted out of a mess of coal rubble, in an era when such discoveries seem much too far between. (read full review)
Cory Branan – The No-Hit Wonder
This is old school country rock at its finest, with exquisitely-crafted, cunning lyrical runs that make you laugh, amazing insight enhanced by brilliant timing and pentameter, and musical clothing that enhance each song’s strengths and endear them to the audience, pointing them the way to the album’s enjoyment.
This is the album Cory Branan needed to write, record, and release. Enough time had passed since his earlier works in the 00′s, and a whole new crop of listeners have emerged for this type of music to where it was necessary to re-introduce himself to the musical world in a way that could open his entire body of work to a hungry audience always looking for new songwriters to sink themselves into. (read full review)
Ben Miller Band – Any Way, Shape, or Form
The Ben Miller Band from Joplin, Missouri is one of those bands, and they illustrate their prowess and commitment to the music in their new album on New West Records called Any Way, Shape, or Form. Procuring the foundation for their music from the pre-war and Delta blues, and jug and string bands of the deep South, their amorphous sound is like a seance for the creaky bones of past generations to animate back to life from the inalienable pull of an infectious groove.
The Ben Miller Band carves out a distinctive niche for themselves, and one that elevates them above the common, overdone ruts, while not traveling too far from the primal familiarity of roots music that makes it such an eternal gift. (read full review)
Billy Joe Shaver – Long In The Tooth
We have waited seven damn years for the 74-year-old to finally put out another album of original music, and Long In The Tooth is well worth the wait. The album finds Billy Joe Shaver sitting tall in the saddle, shouting and spitting, brandishing his fists and taking potshots, and shining in moments of unexpected sentimentality.
Blame the seven year hiatus for helping to refine his material, blame his immortal spirit that refuses to let him sit down, or blame the talent within him that appears to be bottomless. But at 74-years-old, Billy Joe Shaver is still schooling an army of artists who would love to label themselves Outlaws, but don’t have the acumen to truly understand what the word even means, let alone the skills to pull it off, or the history to back it up. (read full review)
Bradford Lee Folk – Somewhere Far Away
A simply-stated, wholesome, traditional yet original bluegrass album, Somewhere Far Away delves into the emotion-stirring exploration of melody like few other projects inside or out of the bluegrass world. Bradford’s voice is warm, soothing, and understated in a good way, never getting too exercised like the ideal voice of wisdom and reason, which is only fitting for the sage-like sentiments these songs convey. The high lonesome tone that seems as effortless as breath to Bradford evokes the majesty of wide vistas, stoking the imagination.
Somewhere Far Away may not win any grand accolades from the bluegrass circuit because it doesn’t represent an extreme of the discipline. But unlike some of the speed demons, compositional wizards, and purists setting the pace in bluegrass proper, it is simply a joy to listen to. (read full review)
Petunia & The Vipers – Inside of You
Hailing from high on the Western Hemisphere in Vancouver, British Columbia, Petunia & The Vipers shift from primitive country, to rockabilly, to jazz chording and Latin rhythms like they’re one in the same—like a Canadian version of Wayne “The Train” Hancock with a sound that is completely original while still being referential to the better days of music.
Some bands and artists are so creative, their stories etch a tragedy of never finding the commercial recognition they deserve. Other artists must take their inspiration and interpret it to a more accessible audience. Petunia & The Vipers are one of these creative generators and innovators, and their music and moxy can be found defining the cutting edge of what is considered creative in country and roots today. (read full review)
Old Crow Medicine Show – Remedy
Old Crow Medicine Show is the band that showed up in Nashville and were able to maintain their true and original form of expression, and have it stick. The trendy string band craze of 2012 topped by Mumford & Sons came and went, and Old Crow Medicine Show is still here.
Somewhat predictable, but very enjoyable, Old Crow Medicine Show’s Remedy continues their reign as America’s preeminent string band, while ushering in a new era of success and recognition that will see the band go down in history as an important influence. (read full review)
Dale Watson – The Truckin’ Session Vol. 3
The key to a good truckin’ song is to not take it too seriously, to have fun with it, but to not be all ham and eggs either. Dale Watson finds that ideal balance on this 3rd installment, and beyond just being really damn fun to listen to, the album has some great variety of moods that do the legacy of the truckin’ song justice.
Should Dale Watson start to be considered for induction as a country truckin’ song overlord in the company of Dave Dudley, Dick Curless, and Red Sovine? They were the originators, but Dale is definitely making a strong case that he is the best modern day equivalent. Whether you want to buy the whole trilogy or just this installment is your truckin’ business. But if you’ve never listened to any of them, The Truckin’ Sessions Vol. 3 is definitely the place to start. (read full review)
Dex Romweber Duo – Images 13
Half the time you don’t know what the hell is going on, and that’s half the fun of it. Dex Romwever goes wherever his whimsy takes him, and with such a handsome tool chest of musical skills to call upon at any notice, and a music encyclopedia for a brain, he can. He’s like the American music version of silly putty. It’s the sound of America longing for a simpler past, and finding horror movies about haunted houses and flying saucers, sun-drenched beaches with dangerous undertows shaded through sepia tones, and Memphis sweat corroding the lacquer of catalog guitars.
It blows my mind any time I’m talking to a fellow music nerd and they give me a “Dex who?” But isn’t that always the way with the originators of a sound, especially ones whose influences are so varied as this one. (read full review)
Zoe Muth – World of Strangers
Like the faces of children, each song on World of Strangers has something hard not to be endeared to. The faraway cry of the steel guitar on the opening number “A Little Piece of History”, the empathetic character at the heart of “Mama Needs A Margarita”, the aching in “Annabelle”, the timelessness of “Waltz of the Wayward Wind”, and the story so easy to relate to in “What Did You Come Back Here For?”
World of Strangers does not grab you by the gruff and make you listen, it’s a creeper that burrows itself into your bones. It’s not a flood that comes crashing in with waves, it’s the one that rises unexpectedly until you’re knee deep. (read full review)
John Fullbright – Songs
For a 26-year-old who must feel the pressure of fulfilling the expectations his first album set, Fullbright is positively fearless in Songs. And in between the first, middle and last song of this album that sketch the moral arc of his intended message, he entertains with wistful mentions of love, and extended bouts of storytelling, built just as much upon piano and organ tone as it is guitar, and with generally sparse, but always ample and appropriate musical arrangements that achieve the goal of highlighting the words and little else.
With Songs, John Fullbright sets the standard by which all other songwriters will be measured by in 2014. (read full review)
Ags Connolly – How About Now
After studying and listening to country music for years, including a few forays over to the United States to see James Hand on his home soil, and even share the stage with Dale Watson at Austin’s famed Continental Club, Ags drew up the confidence to release his debut album How About Now.
Drop all the qualifiers, discounts, and rhetoric about origin, Ags Connolly deserves to be considered right beside his Stateside counterparts as one of the carriers of the country music holy ghost whose carefully-crafted songs can speak to the human heart universally, irrespective of borders. (read full review)
Willie Watson – Folk Singer Vol. 1
To become a solo artist, Willie Watson didn’t decide to create a more sensible approach, or learn how to be more personable and well-rounded as an entertainer. Instead he drew even further inward, took what he did and boiled it down even further to the kernel of his creative genius where he’s channeling with almost ghostly authenticity the very folk singers, country troubadours, and blues men he seeks to resurrect through his music. Stern faced and focused, he comes out and sings with such a fierceness, dedication and heart to the emotions and humanity behind the stories he’s singing about, I’ll be damned if Willie Watson doesn’t come across more like Woody Guthrie than Woody Guthrie. (read full review)
Nikki Lane – All or Nothin’
Getting the truth out of Nikki Lane isn’t something that needs to be coaxed. Whether it’s the surprising, if not shocking honesty of sinful behavior coming from a female voice evidenced in the songs “Right Time” and “Sleep With A Stranger”, or the vulnerability presented in “Good Man” or “Out Of My Mind”, you don’t have to squint to see that these songs are the truth through Nikki Lane’s eyes.
Nikki Lane is seesawing from one debilitating set of emotions to another, but always doing her best to translate and capture those emotions in songs to share with the rest of the world in a way that makes us both sympathize and share in those experiences, embellishing the rich textures of being alive. (read full review)
John Howie Jr. – Everything Except Goodbye
John Howie Jr. has always loomed large as a frontman and singer, but there’s a few tracks on Everything Except Goodbye where he figures out how to downright outdo himself. He simply sings the hell out of the songs on this album, testing his range and dexterity like never before, resulting in him really squeezing the true emotion out of the story and drawing your ear in.
John Howie Jr. & Rosewood Bluff really have the country music formula down of how to sound familiar, while still sounding fresh and original. A great country album. (read full review)
Doug Strahan – Coal Black Dreams & Late Night Schemes
Many try to resurrect that heroine sweat sound of the 70′s. They throw reel to reel seances. They blow all manner of money on vintage gear. But I’ve never heard someone get so close to the true heart of that sound as Doug Strahan does on this album.
Maybe a little more classic rock than country for the most part, but still with some excellent country songs, Cold Black Dreams, Late Night Schemes has a little something for everyone … well except for those glow stick-twirling EDM freaks and Florida Georgia Line losers, but they can go suck black lemons; we like it loose and a little off-time, and that’s what Doug Strahan delivers with blurry-eyed beatnik coolness. (read full review)
Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line
A Dotted Line very much starts where Nickel Creek left off—bravely challenging the conventions and boundaries of bluegrass with not just a progressive approach, but an aggressive approach that delivers thought-provoking composition and instrumentation, dazzling just as much from its acrobatic adeptness as it does from its infectiousness.
This is not an album to be heard, but listened to, and appreciated for its gilded, artistic merit more than it’s gritty authenticity. However by challenging the ear, Nickel Creek can also open the heart to new appreciations for music and composition in an era when commercial concerns often begrudge the brightest musicians of our time. (read full review)
The Secret Sisters – Put Your Needle Down
Their Southern harmonies were born with such a purity that can only be found in sister siblings. When The Secret Sisters harmonize, it is the sound a pining heart makes, or the sound emitted when a crack cleaves the soul. Or it’s the salve that mends the heart and soul, depending on the theme of the story their soaring voices carry.
T Bone Burnett’s production doesn’t seem to have any sense or respect for the time and place The Secret Sisters’ music naturally evokes; their music seems only the canvas for T Bone to do his worst. But damn if I don’t love virtually everything The Secret Sisters themselves do on this album. (read full review)
Bob Wayne – Back to the Camper
“Every record I’ve done so far I’ve been pretty happy with. This one has got a lot more story songs. It’s got a couple of hellraiser-type ‘yee-haw!’ songs. But I get a little bit more into my storytelling side. I spent a couple months at my property in Alabama, and I just sat by the fire with my banjo and guitar. I don’t know, the story songs were just really hitting me.
“Overall I’m super, super happy with how that all turned out. It has a different feel.”
Moot Davis – Goin’ In Hot
From shit kickers like the rousing “Midnight Train” or the Yoakam-like “Love Hangover”, to more somber, singer-songwriter tracks like “The Reason” that very easily could have been written by Merle Haggard, Moot grabs the country-leaning listener by the scruff right off the bat and pulls you into this album; steel guitar moaning and squalling high in the mix like Ralph Mooney, “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan (Marty Stuart’s guitar player) playing producer and putting his proven country music touch all over this record, and the sweet and talented Nikki Lane lending her voice to the effort in spots. they make a record that is both timeless and relevant, and satiates all sectors of your salivating country music palette. (read full review)
Johnny Cash – Out Among The Stars
Johnny Cash left music, and left the world behind at the top of his game, having been revitalized and resurrected in the public consciousness as the result of his American Recordings era, leaving the crowd wanting more as all great entertainers do. Though Out Among The Stars may not reach the high critical acclaim Cash set for himself in the last era of his career, it is a more than worthy offering allowing the Man in Black to once again live among us in our hearts and imaginations, leaving the listener ruminating on the historic accomplishments of a man whose musical accomplishments will never be equaled. (read full review)
The Urban Pioneers – Addicted to the Road
The key to the success of the Urban Pioneers project was their decision to take it in a primitive, old time country direction. It is perfect for the skills that Jared McGovern and Liz Sloan bring to the table, is complimentary of their strengths and weaknesses, while giving them the ability to mostly re-create what you hear on the album in the live context.
There’s a lot of Hackensaw Boys and Foghorn Stringband in the Urban Pioneers approach: authentic, energetic, while resisting the urge to pass completely into the punk roots realm. (read full review)
Red Eye Gravy – Dust Bowl Hangover
Destitution and heartbreak are the theme of Dust Bowl Hangover, however the music itself is a very enjoyable experience, with great melodies, catchy hooks, smart and engaging arrangements, and a remarkable amount of spice and variety in the instrumentation to really elevate this album to something much higher than the band’s humble, undiscovered status.
The greatest virtue of Dust Bowl Hangover is that if I was trying to lure an Americana listener into this album, I could pick out a couple of songs that would immediately speak to them. Same could be said for the cowpunk/hellbilly crowd, or for the folks whose hankering is for Texas country. (read full review)
Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits
Lake Street Dive is a neotraditional, throwback group that blends elements of jazz, roots, Motown, and other smoke-filled, bluesy and soulful influences that both awaken the spirit in classic American music while still cleverly residing within its own little niche of the current zeitgeist.
The success and interest in Lake Street Dive means the looking back in music to times when music carried more meaning is still in full swing and continues to nip at the fringes of popular consciousness. Lake Street Dive is a classy, smart, yet accessible and fun band that will help instill a new measure of substance in American music at a time when it is most needed. (read full review)
Whiskey Myers – Early Morning Shakes
The band put out their first album in 2008 and have since become one of Southern rock’s most emboldened and energetic torch bearers, tearing it up across the country to packed houses of both country and rock fans.
With Early Morning Shakes, the now well-seasoned Whiskey Myers crew affirms themselves as one of the preeminent bands in Texas music and beyond.
Scott H. Biram – Nothin’ But Blood
The fried chicken-eating, truck-wrestling, twisted metal, wild-assed, guitar-plucking, gray-whiskered, screaming and shouting, foot stomping “Dirty ‘Ol One Man Band” known as Scott H. Biram is back with a brand new album called Nothin’ But Blood from Bloodshot Records, and it’s a shoot-a-belt-of-whiskey and run-buck-wild-in-the-woods kind of good time, followed by the old-school repentance and cool-minded reflections of a Sunday morning. It’s all porch picking and domestic disputes, flashing cop lights and shack shows deep in the woods. Bury your no good woman with a shovel, and then sing a gospel song as the human soul pinballs between good and evil in the ever-restless struggle of a man baptized in the blood of his own sins. (read full review)
Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread
The River & The Thread is an album that was worth waiting for. Produced and co-written with Rosanne’s husband, accomplished musician John Leventhal, this album is exhaustive, thematic, all-encompassing, and compromises nothing when it comes to desiring the highest degree of quality in songwriting and production.
The beauty of this album is how it conveys with such reverence the spirit of the river region, with Rosanne’s birthplace of Memphis very much the fulcrum. The River & The Thread doesn’t discriminate in its description of human lives and the landscape in which they live amongst. They are all bound together into this universal body, connected by a cohesive filament sewn into the fabric of every life, artifact, and element, which in turn constitutes a tapestry that unfurls out like a linear story. (read full review)
Jackson Taylor & The Sinners – Live at Billy Bob’s
Jackson Taylor & The Sinners are the best hard-driving country band you’ve never heard of. How do I know you’ve never heard of them? Because nobody has, except for the people that have, and as those people can attest, nobody has heard of them.
Jackson Taylor is one of these guys you can’t take too seriously or you lose touch with the total enjoyment you can get from him, while at the same time he can be deceptively deep when you read between the lines, or when he performs a song like “Faulkner By Dashboard Lights”—a true and personal track from Jackson and one of the standouts from the set. (read full review)
Ben Davenport Band – Slow Start
Ben Davenport’s album Slow Start feels like a victory. Reflecting back on a lifetime of memories, accomplishments, failures, and the fortunes and lessons that come with both, it is a self-critique and cathartic, fiercely personal, and an album you can tell Jim Yoss made for himself, be damned if anyone else likes it; a bookend on his life exposing vulnerability, toughness, honesty, and frailty—an album he had to make so the next chapter in his life could begin.
This is a good one. (read full review)
Yes, if you thought Willie Nelson already released an album this year, you would be correct. It was called Band of Brothers, and without rigging the measuring stick because he’s a legend, or crossing my fingers behind my back, I can tell you it was one of the better albums released in all of country music in 2014. Consumers felt similarly, and Band of Brothers became a #1 record upon its release; Willie’s first #1 in 28 years, though under a system Billboard has now replaced with one taking into account streaming, which will likely see Willie and other legends who’ve had luck on the charts lately losing out to younger artists with stream happy fans.
But Willie was not done in 2014, and released Willie’s Stash, Vol. 1 December Day on 12/2. This is not a Christmas album as some may assume from the timing and title (and others have purchased believing it to be according to a couple of emails I’ve received), though it does have a very glowing, hearth-like feel, and the album is a family affair. The occasion surrounding December Day is to capture Willie with sister Bobbie Nelson—his long-time piano player—in a very intimate, stripped-down studio setting with producer Buddy Cannon presiding, and only a few more sparse accoutrements from Willie’s long-standing “Family Band.”
Like the “Willie’s Stash, Vol. 1″ titling infers, this should be considered the other release, the more secondary release from Willie Nelson in 2014. Something for the hardcore fans instead of the masses so to speak, and you see this in the way Legacy has approached releasing this album—Willie’s fifth on the Sony catalog imprint. June’s Band of Brothers, Willie’s 2013 duet album To All The Girls…, and 2012′s Heroes all felt like primary releases with a big promotional push. December Day, and the 2013 release Let’s Face The Music And Dance—another release that also included many re-recorded songs—felt like bonus studio material for dedicated Willie lovers.
Interesting that with 2012′s Heroes, Sony apparently put the kibosh on the original album name Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, but here make light of Willie’s well known use and advocacy of marijuana with the “stash” reference, however more veiled it might be. And if we ever will see a Volume 2 or if it’s just a formality to flesh out the title remains to be seen. But in 18 tracks and 20 total songs, December Day sees Willie reprising many of his originals—some well-known, some obscure—while also covering favorites from Irving Berlin, Django Reinhardt, and others. I wouldn’t consider December Day a country album in the traditional sense. It is more of a traditional pop album, where a crooner accompanied primarily by a piano would play standards, like a Tony Bennett record, only with more earthy tones from Willie’s more weathered voice and the sound of his famous Trigger guitar.
Though it says right there on the cover and in the track notations that this is mostly about Willie pairing with Sister Bobbie, long-time Nelson harmonica player Mickey Raphael plays a very important role on this record, adding his signature and tasteful textures on many of the tracks. Also interesting to note that we see Willie’s long-time bass player Bee Spears’ name appear in the credits. Bee passed away in an unfortunate accident in December of 2011, meaning some of this music has been laying around for a while, and predates Willie’s Legacy label deal. Billy English—the brother of drummer Paul English—also appears briefly, but overall December Day stands up to the billing of being primarily Willie and Bobbie.
The excellent part about this album is the intimacy, and each track singled out is its own little gem. When news first came down of this project, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it set my eyes to rolling a little bit. Willie did such a great job with Heroes and Band of Brothers defying his age and adding to his legacy, I just don’t want to see his fan base taxed with too many auxiliary releases, especially to the point where listeners start ignoring them (see the 00′s). But when a video for “Who’ll Buy My Memories” was released (see below), my optimism perked up. The idea of getting a glimpse of how an evening at the Nelson Family residence may transpire when music is on the mind makes this something unique and special, even if we’ve heard these songs before.
However when you zoom out and listen to December Day cover to cover for all 20 songs, it does become a little bit tedious. Along with re-treading some songs he’s already re-treaded many times before (Willie might have recorded “Nuages” more times than Florida Georgia Line says “girl” in a hit single), Willie’s also put nearly all of his material that relies on minor keys and fey jazz-style chording that trips up the ear in one place with this album. When you add on top a general lack of body in the instrumentation, you end up with an album that is hard to call “accessible” as one of its attributes. Yes, it’s a “stash” of songs we’ve heard before done in a different way, but one I wouldn’t label as essential to anyone but dedicated Willie Nelson fans.
What December Day does deliver is a remarkable attention to tone, conveyed with such respectful care and taste, it’s like touching something pleasing but with your ears. Willie Nelson’s voice, though handsomely weathered, sounds strong and regal, like the knotty, intertwined resolve of an antique wooden cane only rendered more sturdy and character-etched by time. In fact you could call Nelson’s voice even more confident here than on Band of Brothers in places because he’s been singing these songs for so many years. His guitar Trigger meets similar results from not having to fight with a full band for attention, while the tinkling of keys by sister Bobbie comprises the foundation for every song. Mickey Raphael has some moments where he cuts his parts as smoothly as the sunrise crests the horizon, and overall despite a lack of originality of material, December Day delivers a tactically-pleasing experience if nothing else.
Recommended only for dedicated Willie fans, or people who love minimalist recordings of standards, but recommended nonetheless, Willie and Bobbie’s December Day “stash” makes for not a bad pre-holiday aperitif.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Up.
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See, this is why politics and music don’t mix.
If you want to know what the rough equivalent is to the worst of mainstream country music in greater popular culture, political advertising would not be a bad choice for an analogous partner. They both are incredibly lacking in self-awareness, they both appeal to the least common denominator, they both assume an unintelligent audience, and they both are the scourge of their respective disciplines. What piety, and pandering to demographics they display. It really is about the worst media one can be exposed to.
Now consider what would happen if you combined these two unfortunate phenomena together. What you get is the new song called “Stand With Hillary” released by the Stand With Hillary organization— a political super PAC that apparently has no affiliation with Hillary Clinton directly, but is really hot to trot to get her elected for an office she’s not even officially running for yet, and using really bad Bro-ish country music to help do it.
“Stand With Hillary” features a scruffy cowboy who can’t decided if he’s a dusty-booted farmer or a construction worker as he lip-syncs poorly to a studio track of hork-inducing political lyrics. Even better, the guy lip-syncing in the video isn’t even the singer, he’s an actor named Jason Tobias who’s also appeared in music videos for Chris Brown and Ariana Grande, once played Jesus, and is currently doing re-enactments for a television series about people who murder their relatives. Mr. Tobias claims to be apolitical, and says the producers chose him because he “looked like a country star” according to The Washington Post.
The actual person who sang the song was someone only known as “T. Wilson,” while it was written by a media consultant named Miguel Orozco who helped start the Stand With Hillary PAC. And this is not the only pandering and culturally-profiling song/ad Orozco has created. In 2008, he released “Viva Obama” and “Obama Reggaetown.”
It only makes sense with the increased popularity of country music that political advertising would start to be specifically catered to the country demographic. And with a fake, fashion-plate singer, manufactured lyrics, an overproduced video, and rampant incidental comedy including Queen “We Will Rock You” interludes, it would fit right in on country radio.
And don’t you reactionary Hillary haters let yourselves off the hook too quickly. You know Republicans have been guilty of his same type of hokey garbage in the past, and they probably have their own videos in the works.
Each year when Saving Country Music sits down to compile the best songs, it’s done so with a solemn reverence and understanding that the idea embedded in a song has the power to change a life, and change the world. There are many songs out there that are a joy to listen to, but a Song of the Year must say something that can evoke shivers, and do so in a way nobody else has done before.
Parker Milsap had an excellent song this year called “Truck Stop Gospel,” and Jim Lauderdale‘s “I Lost You” pound for pound may be the most enjoyable song released all year. Willie Watson had numerous songs like “Mexican Cowboy” and “Keep It Clean” that while not originals, had the energy and approach of ones. There were epics like Joseph Huber‘s “Wanchese & Manteo,” or great performances like The Secret Sisters‘ “The Lonely Island.” But the nine songs below stood out from the rest in Saving Country Music’s humble opinion.
Audience participation is strongly encouraged, and will influence the outcome. Leave your opinions, write-in candidates, or other observations below in the comments section. This is not simply an up and down vote though. I make the final decision, so it is your job to convince me why the album you feel deserves to win is the right pick. The winner will be chosen in about a month.
Don Williams – “I’ll Be Here In The Morning” – from Reflections
Townes Van Zandt and Don Williams team up to deliver one of the most disarming performances of 2014, taking a timeless composition, and bringing it to life again through an immortal voice. The warmth this performance coveys is astounding, and as can be seen in the video, it was recorded live. Great song from a great album. (read review)
Lydia Loveless – “Everything’s Gone” – from Somewhere Else
“Everything’s Gone” is Lydia’s crowning achievement thus far in her career, showing remarkable insight, and delivering a vocal performance that fills as much emotion as humanly possible into the vessel of a story—any more and it would fall apart under its own weight.
“Lord now I’m sick of seeing the fear in my family’s eyes. I need to find the man who put it there and set his life on fire.”
Ray Benson & Willie Nelson – “It Ain’t You” - from A Little Piece
Originally written by Waylon Jennings with Gary Nicholson, “It Ain’t You” was never recorded, and was relatively unknown except to a select few for many years. When Asleep At The Wheel frontman Ray Benson was looking for material to release on his first solo album in a decade, the song was suggested to him by Sam “Lightnin’” Seifert who co-produced the effort with Lloyd Maines.
What the forces that would sway popular American music to only focus on youth fail to regard is where simply the tone of a voice and the visage of a legendary performer can evoke such a reverence and place such immeasurable weight of an entire remarkable career behind it that an immediate elevation of whatever music being performing occurs in a measure that could never be challenged by the simple exuberance of youth. “It Ain’t You” is exquisitely written, and makes one wonder how this song went unheard for so long. (read full review)
Tami Neilson – “Cry Over You” – from Dynamite!
It is said often that there’s no more standard songs being released that will withstand the test of time. Well Tami Neilson just released one, and punctuated it with a timeless vocal performance.
Sturgill Simpson – “Turtles All The Way Down” – from Metamodern Sounds
A polarizing song from its seeming questioning of faith and drug laws, “Turtles All The Way Down” speaks to the very core of what the Sturgill Simpson experience is all about: a forward-thinking, challenging approach to enhancing the senses by marking a crossroads between traditional country and a progressive approach.
Leon Virgil Bowers – “Streets of Aberdeen” – from LV
Leon Virgil Bowers (formerly of Hellbound Glory) continues to be America’s most undervalued songwriter, and someday the rest of the world is going to wake up to that fact. While Virgil is known most for his strong wit, weaving moments in songs that touch your heart and funny bone at the same time, this exploration of more in-depth storytelling by Leroy was a big success. And only appropriate that the song and video was cut in Aberdeen, in a building with ties to the story. (read more)
Hurray for the Riff Raff – “The Body Electric” -from Small Town Heroes
The legacy of the murder ballad is one of the very building blocks of country, bluegrass, and folk music, and never before has an artist taken that primordial idea and conveyed so much while saying very little. It awakens the defiance in the female condition, as an array of thoughts flow through the listener.
First Aid Kit – “Waitress Song” – from Stay Gold
First Aid Kit’s Stay Gold on any other year might be the album everyone is talking about, and in certain segments of the folk and Americana world, it still is. No album can top it in 2014 when it comes to harmonies and melody building, and it’s hard to pinpoint just one song where this is evidenced the best. But even amongst the towering compositions of the album like “My Silver Lining” and “Cedar Lane,” “The Waitress Song” is the one I kept coming back to. A strange song from the usually serious and regal Söderberg sisters, it starts off playful and silly with it’s fluttering “girls just want to have fun” line, but reveals later a lot of life truths and deep perspective swirling around the idea of walking away from ones self and starting over.
“It’s a dark, twisted road we are on. And we all have to walk it alone.”
Matt Woods – “Liberty Bell” – from Brushy Mountain
The question going into Matt Woods’ new album With Love From Brushy Mountain was if he could he match the magic he evoked in his song “Deadman’s Blues” that went on to win him Saving Country Music’s Song of the Year in 2013. The answer turned out to be “yes,” and the best evidence might be this soul-wrenching song that matches “Deadman’s Blues” punch for punch.
This isn’t some beer league bar band made up of 2nd shifters from the machinist union out on a Friday night to give the jukebox a spell, this is Whitey Morgan & the 78′s dammit—the most wild-eyed honky tonk hard-stomping band ever to put their boots through a bass drum head. And to have a high quality rig on site recording it all in their home confines of The Machine Shop of Flint, Michigan as they wreak havoc on stage and sour their livers with enough sauce to stop a Russian racehorse, it could only resort in a must-have audio experience for hardcore twangers.
No offense to their two solid studio albums, but the live forum has always been the ideal place to witness the Whitey Morgan & the 78′s experience. They thrive in their natural honky tonk environment like caged country music animals let out on stage only for the occasion of entertainment, while still carrying a precision to their music, with little runs, stops, and rhythms worked out and worn in during darn near 300 some odd days of touring a year to where these guys could shit better music than many bands. So it’s about damn time a live album was released, especially since this particular set of music was recorded way back in 2011, and it’s been since 2010 that we’ve had a Whitey Morgan release of any kind.
Born, Raised, & LIVE From Flint captures a well-seasoned 78′s band with a couple of extra pieces like harmonica and organ/piano for good measure reprising Whitey’s most popular songs with a live energy any studio effort just can’t match. Along with being a live album, you could also consider this a Greatest Hits package from the first half decade-plus of the band. Whitey & Co. barrel into originals like “Buick City,” “Turn Up The Bottle,” and “I Ain’t Drunk,” along with their best-known covers like Johnny Paycheck’s “Cocaine Train,” Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” and the famous song written by Dale Watson about Billy Joe Shaver shooting a man in Waco “Where Do You Want It.” If you’re just stumbling onto Whitey right now and looking for a place to start, Born, Raised, & LIVE might not be a bad option.
Even for some hardcore fans, live albums can be tedious after you’ve listened to recorded versions of songs for years to the point where your brain is unreceptive to newer versions. But in the case of Born, Raised, & LIVE, there’s just enough wrinkles to make the songs unique and new. For example the inclusion of Mike Lynch on piano/organ really adds a richness to these tracks beyond the live energy. Also this recording was made right at the height of the classic version of this band with JD MacKinder on bass, Benny James Vermeylen on guitar, and Brett Robinson on steel guitar, after they’d been touring non-stop, resulting in arrangements and instrumental solos that are more tight and better developed than when they were in the studio. And since so many of Whitey’s covers are just as good as their originals, it’s good to get versions of those you can listen to when the next local Whitey show is months away.
This live album is being released right as a whole slew of new Whitey Morgan material is on its way, including a new studio album slated for sometime next year, and an acoustic album called Grandpa’s Guitar scheduled to be released December 16th. “I recorded this album all over this great country, including various shady motel rooms,” Whitey Morgan says about the upcoming acoustic release. “NO fancy production, just me and my guitar, lots of whiskey, a microphone and a whole lot of ME! I set out to capture those private, sometimes lonely moments on tape and I’m proud of the results. Hope you enjoy.”
The fact that Whitey Morgan & The 78′s are good live is one of the reasons they could go darn near half a decade now without releasing any new music, yet still build up their legacy and fan base to the point where they’ve never been bigger. Born, Raised, & LIVE gives hardcore Whitey fans a home version of the madness and magic that sets the hair of honky-tonk crowds on fire all across the country and beyond.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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